In Tserovani, a large settlement of internally displaced persons from South Ossetia a half hour away from Tbilisi, yellow and blue billboards speak to Georgian Dream’s dominance. The opposition United National Movement (UNM), which came second in the election, here as across the country is much less visible – often simply the number ‘5’ painted on the tarmac, in reference to the party’s number on the ballot box.
Three out of its four polling stations voted for the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) coalition; just one saw the UNM prevailing. Voters were spoiled for choice at the ballot box, but although 25 political entities ran for a seat in parliament, the race boiled down to the two leading ones with the Georgian Dream leading main the UNM by 48.61% to 27.04%. At 5% the pro-Russia Alliance of Patriots is the third political force in parliament.
The election was the latest round in the enduring rivalry between two political titans – Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and Georgia’s richest man, who has led Georgian Dream since 2011; and Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president who is wanted by the authorities on what he calls politically motivated charges and is instead serving out his exile as governor of Odesa region in Ukraine.
Yet the personal rivalry between two of Georgia’s leading political figures, neither of whom holds an official post, may be losing its salience. The vote was shaped by low voter-turnout and disillusionment, as many voters decided to stay home – the 51.3% turnout, down from 60.8% in 2012, was the lowest in Georgia’s history according to analyst David Sachinava.
“My voice counts for nothing. Saakashvili pushed me here, Ivanishvili is a billionaire I do not trust, why bother?” says Nodar bitterly, who hails from a village near Akhalgori in South Ossetia, to which he cannot return because it is occupied by Russia.
Disfranchised voters like Nodar are a wake-up call for the Georgian politicians called in the run-offs at the end of the month. The final composition of the 150-member assembly in the mixed electoral system will be defined after the second round of voting in 51 out of the total 73 single-mandate constituencies. The run-offs are a make-or-break vote for high-profile candidates like former defence minister Irakli Alasania whose Free Democrats is currently failing to clear the 5% threshold in the party-list to get into parliament. Earlier this year, Georgia reformed its mixed electoral system that will enter into force from 2017.
Pro-Western parties like the Free Democrats and the Republican Party of now-former speaker of parliament David Usupashvili paid the price of running alone, as joining forces would have secured them a voice in the assembly.
It’s the economy, stupid
A sea of orderly lined, red-roofed cottages, all the same, each with a small back garden, Tserovani encapsulates the country’s challenges. Its displaced population of 8,000 is a stark reminder of the open wounds of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Russian-controlled breakaway regions against which the state fought bloody conflicts over and led to a quarter of a million people fleeing to other parts of Georgia.
Unemployment is rampant, considerably higher than the official 12% recorded across the country in 2015. Each registered internally displaced person is entitled to a monthly allowance of only GEL45 (€17) and there is little for these mostly former farmers to do to top that up. A few entrepreneurs run grocery shops and women gather in association producing art craft, but mostly scores of men sit idle waiting for daily labour. “No party really addresses what worries people, the struggling economy and the lack of jobs,” a diplomatic source tells bne IntelliNews.
The economy has limped on as regional instability hit the country’s main trading partners, but a slow recovery is under way, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasting 3.4% growth in 2016, accelerating to 5.2% in 2017. The Georgian lari has also been sailing through troubled waters since 2014, punishing small savers. A poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in July identified Georgians’ priorities – economic policies, health care and national security.
In some voters’ minds, Georgian Dream had the of advantage of running on its universal healthcare programme, which was introduced in 2015 and has been a lifesaver in a country where the average monthly salary stands at just GEL900, although analysts maintain it is not sustainable in the long term. Support for agriculture, which employs over 50% of the population but contributes just 10% to GDP, is another. “The government is helping small farmers – before Georgian Dream nobody ever cared about us,” says Giorgi Tamarashvili, a 47-year-old farmer who comes once a week from central Georgia to Tbilisi’s large market to sell vegetables.
Georgia’s political landscape has been highly polarised since the country gained independence in 1991; elections were constantly scarred by violence and the first peaceful transfer of power through the ballot happened for the first time in 2012.
Zurab, a taxi driver who taught himself English to attract more foreign customers, has a blunt explanation for his UNM choice. “Before Saakashvili we were stupid, killing each other here and there. Now we’re still stupid, but at least we stopped killing each other.”
The low-key nature of much of this campaign led many observers to hope that politics was building on that achievement. However, habits are hard to break and the week leading up to the vote was marred by a string of violent incidents. In the worst, the car carrying UNM politician Givi Targamadze blew up; he survived but five by-passers were injured and the attack sent shockwaves through a government determined to showcase Georgia’s political environment as safe, fair, and transparent.
On polling day, attacks to precincts in Marneuli, a municipality in eastern Georgia mainly populated by the Azerbaijani minority, and in Zugdidi in the west of the country, were a stain on a day which monitoring groups labeled as generally competitive and open.
Yet the UNM claimed that the process was rigged and accused the government of vote fraud. “Votes have been stolen from us – we will defend our votes, ”Nika Melia, chief of the party’s campaign and MP candidate, told protesters rallying outside the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).
But statements by the EU, Nato and Council of Europe, as well as those from national election observers, hailed the vote as “competitive, well-administered, and fundamental freedoms were generally respected”, though the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe highlighted irregularities in the counting process “due to procedural problems and increased tensions”. An army of nearly 30,000 national and international observers was deployed across the country to closely follow the process.
While Georgian Dream favours dialogue with Russia versus open confrontation, both the ruling coalition and the UNM remain committed to the country’s pro-West trajectory, which Moscow sees as a threat in its traditional sphere of influence.
The populist rhetoric of the pro-Russia Alliance of Patriots managed where other political forces have failed and will enter parliament. Concerns over Russia’s soft power in Georgia are widespread and the Alliance’s results are seen by many as a sign the Kremlin’s push to win the hearts and minds of Georgians. Others aren’t so sure. “That [soft power] activity has not paid off, as the pro-Russian had 15% potential support way back in 2008,” notes Hans Gutbrod, an independent analyst of the Caucasus. “Actually, it has not budged much. One should not be complacent, but it is not all doom.”
Georgia may not look perfect, but it’s far from doomed. “[It] remains a frontrunner in the region in terms of its pluralistic democracy, competitive business environment and committed Euro-Atlantic perspective,” maintains Maximilien Lambertson, research analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. “Aggressive rhetoric and isolated violent incidents will not suffice to place Georgia in the same category as its neighbours. While the economy has struggled under Georgian Dream rule, it continues to significantly outperform its neighbours on business environment and corruption rankings. We do not expect a sharp reversal in any of these areas, even if rhetoric in parliament becomes polarised between Georgian Dream and UNM.”
Still, the picture remains mixed. “We have two footballers, while a constitutionalist and an incredible lawyer are out,” laments Vladimer Shioshvili, an American-Georgian IT programmer, referring to the Republican Party’s Vakhtang Khmaladze and Free Democrats’ Shalva Shavgulidze failure to make into parliament, while football players Kakha Kaladze and Reso Arveladze were elected for the Georgian Dream. “It is the worst that could have happened to this country – the last thing we need is a party run by an oligarch having a constitutional majority.”
The acid test will be whether the coalition government can make any difference to the lives of ordinary Georgians like the residents of Tserovani. “Life is hard, yet this is not life,” sighs Nodar.