Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili led a triumphant delegation in late March on a visit to Athens and then Brussels. The Georgian officials were celebrating a hard-fought victory, as the European Union finally made good on its promise to allow Georgians to travel to Europe visa-free.
But while Georgia has taken a step closer to the EU, the democratization process at home seems to be moving backward.
Visa liberalization makes life easier for Georgians traveling to Europe. It also has symbolic importance, affirming Georgia’s deepening integration with Europe and showing its citizens a tangible benefit of the country’s reform efforts. But beyond this symbolic victory, the future of Georgia’s democratic development remains in question.
The delicate balance that helped Georgia make progress toward its goal of EU membership is in peril of being upended. This January, the United National Movement, the political force behind the country’s Rose Revolution in 2003, split into two. The party’s disintegration means the country no longer has an opposition party capable of counterbalancing the governing Georgian Dream coalition. That has observers asking: Will the absence of strong opposition parties hinder the evolution of civil society in Georgia?
The answer starts with Georgian Dream. In the short term, Bidzina Ivanishvili and other leaders of the governing party may be tempted to break out the champagne and toast the demise of the only opposition party strong enough to challenge them in parliament. They would be advised to take a deep breath and consider the potential downsides, too. Most obviously, Georgian Dream runs the risk of becoming arrogant and unaccountable.
This has been a recurring theme in Georgian politics since the 1990s: a new political party is swept into power with broad-based public support and a mandate to undo the excesses of the previous rulers; the party is relatively unopposed and eventually comes to govern in a self-serving and self-defeating manner; a new political party then sweeps into power with broad-based public support and a mandate to undo the excesses of the previous rulers. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The risks to the democratic system in Georgia are heightened by Georgian Dream’s constitutional majority. Without a viable opposition to at least challenge the party in the court of public opinion, chances increase that its members will overreach, and thus pervert the existing balance, by amending the constitution to further their parochial interests – thus provoking a backlash from the public.
The early indication is that Georgian Dream leaders have not learned that lesson of history. The party plans to amend the constitution to make the president elected by MPs, and members of municipal councils – not by direct ballot. It is also talking about ditching the country’s mixed majoritarian-proportional voting system for parliament in favor of a fully proportional system, albeit with a catch: parties would be barred from forming electoral blocs, and any unallocated seats – left over by the failure of smaller parties to pass the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament – would automatically go to the leading party, which, for the moment, is Georgian Dream.
Those measures would go a long way toward cementing the current governing party’s hold on power; they would also be a setback for the separation of powers necessary for further democratic development.
The risk of Georgian Dream falling prey to the overreaching is high. There could be a more immediate downside, too. It seems the Georgian electorate has forgiven the ruling party for many of its shortcomings because of deep-rooted antipathy for the United National Movement. After all, public opinion polls gave Georgian Dream underwhelming approval ratings during the months leading up the last parliamentary election, and its huge parliamentary majority came despite receiving only 48 percent of the popular vote. That is not exactly coming in on a wave of euphoria.
The United National Movement’s split could end badly for everyone involved. The schism completed the ongoing fragmentation of Georgia’s political opposition, shattering the relative equilibrium between the governing party and opposition that underpinned democratic development over the past several years. As a country that is still striving toward consolidated democracy, Georgia cannot afford to backslide. A strong opposition keeps the ruling party honest, helping ensure that necessary reforms take place and democratic institutions take root.
As in other democracies, the emergence of a strong, institutionalized party system is not a sufficient condition for democratic consolidation, but it is a necessary one. Parties serve to distill preferences into policies, and act as vehicles for holding elected officials accountable before the public. At the moment, Georgia’s opposition parties are unable to offer a viable alternative to the agenda of the governing party. This situation heightens the level of uncertainty in years to come, especially if Georgian Dream uses its dominant position to entrench itself in power, and impede the country’s democratic development.
There is still hope that Georgian democracy could emerge strong, however. The split has created an opening for a new opposition force to emerge. According to the political cycle sketched out above, Georgian voters are willing to put up with a ruling party for roughly eight years at a time, meaning that Georgian Dream’s current term may very well be its last. By 2020, voters will be calling for a strong, unified opposition force to step forward and challenge the current leadership.
The big question at this point is whether that expected demand will be met with adequate supply.
Kornely Kakachia is director of the Georgian Institute of Politics and a professor of Political Science at Tbilisi State University. Contact him at [email protected]. Joseph Larsen is an analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics. Contact him at [email protected].