Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
Signs of growing tensions between Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Minister of Defense Irakli Alasania have fueled speculation that the Georgian Dream coalition is headed for a breakup - giving President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) party hope for the upcoming October presidential election. But analysts maintain it will take more than a split in the ruling coalition to put the UNM in a winning position in October.
Media speculation about a possible split in the six-party Georgian Dream coalition has been high since Alasania lost his role as vice prime minister on January 23. Ivanishvili's latest revelations on their relationship - which include an odd allegation that Alasania might have taken a trip abroad with the wife of Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava - have only added fuel to the fire.
During a February 5 press conference about his government's first 100 days in office, the prime minister let slip he had questioned Alasania about the trip - and then hurried to distance himself from the rumoured infidelity. "Everyone can make a mistake, and Alasania is still a young man... all of that is very personal and I don't pry into personal matters," he said.
Ivanishvili stressed that there is no discussion about Alasania leaving the coalition, and the issue of who will be named vice prime minister - likely Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili - is of little importance.
Showing who's boss
The tiff between Ivanishvili and Alasania went public on January 24, the day after the PM's office announced Alasania been demoted. Speaking with journalists during his trip to the Davos World Economic Forum in January, Ivanishvili appeared to contradict Alasania's public explanation, namely that his defense portfolio took too much of his time, and explained that the minister was being punished for "a little mistake". "There was simply a misunderstanding that can happen to any politician... He started discussions within his team, in a narrow circle whether to name himself as [a presidential] candidate," Ivanishvili said. "So after this elementary carelessness shown by Irakli, to discuss this issue internally instead of raising the issue within the coalition and agreeing it with me, [information] was leaked, leading to such misinterpretations in the provinces."
Ivanishvili has not formally named his candidate for the October presidential election, although he has spoken highly about Vakhtang Khmaladze, a member of parliament from the Georgian Dream party, as a possibility.
Political scientist Koba Turmanidze notes that Ivanishvili's tone - and the very fact that he discussed the issue with journalists - sent a very public signal about the hierarchy in the coalition. "I am speculating, but there could be a message that 'I [Ivanishvili] am the boss here and these are minor partners for convenience and if they don't behave or if they don't coordinate their actions with me, they will pay for that and the price will be kind of high'," he says. "It doesn't matter that much how serious it [the argument] is between the two guys, between the two political forces. What matters I think is how the electorate perceives it and I think it was perceived as the leader telling off [another] one of the leaders - to demonstrate that Ivanishvili is... high above all the other [leaders in the coalition]."
Turmanidze says that members of the Georgian Dream have spoken openly about the coalition's eventual demise. "They don't even say that the coalition will be there forever, they speak a lot about competition inside the coalition," he says, adding that these discussions have one big assumption underlying them - that the UNM does not exist as a credible contender in any election.
"They think that because the UNM will disappear that they should start competition inside the coalition... but I think the wrong assumption is that the UNM will disappear," he says, noting that the former ruling party still holds the presidency and Tbilisi city government. The UNM also still welds influence over at least one national broadcaster - Rustavi 2 - and, perhaps most importantly, the party has years of experience getting its message out to voters.
During the press conference, Ivanishvili repeated that any party in the coalition is always free to go - but he dismissed speculation that his public rebuke of Alasania could benefit the UNM. Even the name of the former ruling party is like an "allergy" for Georgian voters, he said, stressing that any competition will likely come from a new political force, not Saakashvili's discredited UNM party.
Georgians took out their frustrations with the party that had governed Georgia since the Rose Revolution in 2003 at the ballot box in October last year, voting overwhelmingly for the opposition coalition Georgian Dream.
For the UNM, however, any talk about a split in the coalition is bound to be good news: the former ruling party has lost ten members of parliament. Marika Verulashvili, a long-time Saakashvili ally, was the latest to go, leaving the party on February 5. The party won 65 seats at the last election for the 150-seat parliament.
But political analyst Tornike Sharashenidze cautions that the UNM is still a force in Georgian politics. "The biggest threat to the [Georgian Dream] coalition is incompetent people... these people will severely undermine the image of the Georgian Dream and of Ivanishvili," he says. "At this point I don't see any chance for the UNM in the October elections, [but] I think they could come back in the local elections in May 2014."
"It will be a huge moral blow to the Georgian Dream if they split," he says. But "as long as there is a UNM, I don't expect the Georgian Dream coalition to collapse."
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