Georgia’s ruling coalition will fracture ahead of October's parliamentary election, with the second largest party, the Republican Party, splitting and running on its own or with another partner because of unhappiness with the way the dominant Georgian Dream party is cozying up to Russia, local observers say.
Still, the Georgian Dream-led coalition will maintain its majority in the 150-seat parliament, and Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashili, in announcing the split on March 31 together with Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, who is also chairman of the Republican Party, said the parting of ways was mutual and would not necessarily impact on the functioning of the government or parliament before the election.
The Republican Party is the second largest in the ruling coalition, holding nine seats in parliament compared with Georgian Dream’s 46, six for the National Forum Party, six for the Conservative Party and six seats for the Industry Will Save Georgia Party. Even if Republican lawmakers actually leave the coalition before the election, Georgian Dream would maintain its majority in the 150-seat parliament, thanks to a hybrid system in which roughly half the seats are allocated on a proportional basis and some 73 are elected in single constituencies. In government, Republicans occupy three portfolios – defence, environment and civic equality.
Georgian politics has been marred by several scandals in the past year involving blackmail attempts, partisanship and political infighting. The ruling coalition and some opposition parties, particularly the United National Movement (UNM), have been trading increasingly virulent accusations for the last two years. The standoff has been exacerbated by violent attacks on UNM offices and the targeting of opposition party members with violence and intimate videos. More recently, schisms between coalition parties have also been reported.
Defence Minister Tinatin (Tina) Khidasheli, a former civil rights activist, is also Speaker Usupashvili's wife. The famously liberal, pro-European and anti-Russia minister's statements, in person and on social media, have contributed to rising tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow. In March, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin warned that the Kremlin's patience with the anti-Russia rhetoric emanating from Tbilisi was wearing thin.
"There is no doubt about the fact that [the billionaire founder of Georgian Dream and former PM Bizdina] Ivanishvili calls the shots in Georgian Dream," Sergi Kapanadze, dean of the School of Governance at Caucasus University told bne IntelliNews in an interview. "And Ivanishvili is more at ease with industrialists and more conservative members of the party. Having to explain himself to Moscow because of the defence minister's statements is not an easy position for him."
Khidasheli's statements are not the only reason for the rift between coalition parties – nor is she the only Georgian politician to frequently lambast Russia. Rather, Kapanadze explains, the ruling coalition lacks a common ideological base. The five parties came together in 2012 to form the opposition to the then-dominant United National Movement (UNM), which was founded by the former president and current governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Region, Mikheil Saakashvili. "The coalition was united against UNM,” the academic says. “But in recent months, we have seen the emergence of more conservative, pro-Russia elements in the Georgian Dream Party, which clashed with the liberal Republicans. Put in a position to choose between two factions, Ivanishvili took the side of the old guard in the ruling party."
The claim that the dissolving of the coalition was mutually agreed is simply to save face, Kapanadze believes.
Less than seven months before the parliamentary election, Georgian politics is facing a rather uncertain future. In his statements to journalists on March 31, Prime Minister Kvirikashvili sought to allay concerns that the government would fall apart. "We will try to continue our work in this format before the election,” he said. “It also depends largely on how successful the collaboration between the parties remains. The political agenda does not dictate any cabinet reshuffle at the moment."
But Kapanadze does not see any reason that would compel the Republicans to remain in the coalition. "I would be surprised if the coalition held until October. If [the Republicans] are not running together with Georgian Dream, what would be the point in staying in government and taking responsibility for the things that the coalition will do?" he asks rhetorically.
The electorate's disenchantment with the country’s politics and political infighting is beginning to show in opinion polls, with half of respondents in a November poll saying that they were undecided or refusing to answer the question about who they would vote for. Parties are scrambling to make last-minute changes to attract voters to the polls. Even the more conservative Georgian Dream Party is seeking new faces to overhaul its image and replace some of the less popular of its conservative members, Kapanadze says.
A wild card in the election remains President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has vowed to remain neutral in the parliamentary election. "The Republicans could attempt to coalesce with UNM before or after the election. UNM supporters do not necessarily support the Republican Party or vice versa, so their coming together could rally opposition supporters in favour of the other party,” Kapanadze said. “If Margvelashvili endorsed one of the smaller opposition parties, like the Republicans or Free Democrats, that would also make a difference."
But speaking on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Washington on March 31, Margvelashvili said he would remain above the fray. He did, however, promise to speak out in favour of increasing voter turnout for what has become a more colourful political palette. “The coalition was established for the opposition to change the previous government peacefully [in the 2012 parliamentary elections]. The coalition dealt with this task very well. But the political system wherein there are only two forces – black and white – is already obsolete for Georgian politics and we should offer the voters a much more diverse political choice. In view of having a number of serious players in these elections, voters will have a better possibility to elect their future representatives in parliament,” he said.
Kapanadze is more pessimistic than the head of state, though. "After the [October] election, we will continue to have a black-and-white situation in Georgia, whereby either a pro-Western [UNM-led] coalition will win, or a more pro-Russian [Georgian Dream-led coalition] will," he concludes.
Either way, Georgian Dream or UNM will win the majority of the votes in the election and will make it into parliament, while the fate of smaller parties will largely depend on the political allegiances that they form in the coming months.