Georgia’s Main Opposition Party Looks for a Life after Misha
Left in a tizzy by its recent crushing defeat in Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the South Caucasus country’s main opposition party, the United National Movement, is debating getting rid of the leader who brought it to power and international prominence, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The debate is part of a larger effort by liberal Georgian opposition parties to reinvent themselves after the Georgian Dream nabbed an overwhelming 76.6-percent parliamentary majority in the October polls. Among this crowd, only the United National Movement (UNM) gained a sizable number of seats (27) in the 150-seat legislature.
As the UNM, which ruled Georgia from 2004 to 2012, scrambles to figure out what went wrong, the outspoken, 48-year-old Saakashvili, now a regional Ukrainian governor without Georgian citizenship, has become the chief suspect.
The UNM has been synonymous with “Misha” ever since, as a brash, young political upstart, he led the party to power in the wake of the 2003 Rose Revolution. Four election seasons later, however, many see him as the party’s main drag.
Ahead of the October 8 vote, Saakashvili grandly promised to return to Georgia if the UNM wins, but, clearly, that prospect did nothing to attract additional voters.
Even the man once considered Georgia’s “mini-Misha,” ex-Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, 41, now serving a prison sentence for misspending public funds, pushed for a change in leadership. “The party has to develop and it cannot become a hostage of our imprisonment or banishment,” Ugulava wrote in a Facebook letter in reference to the imprisonment of other UNM leaders as well as Saakashvili’s self-imposed move to Ukraine.
Ugulava, who has stepped down as head of the party’s Tbilisi operations, said that the UNM’s reluctance to announce a prospective prime minister created the sense that, if returned to power, it would introduce informal, long-distance rule by Saakashvili.
Other members, though, argue that Misha, given his reputation as a reformer, was the best thing the party had to offer voters.
Nonetheless, Saakashvili is no longer sacrosanct. In an unprecedented step, some senior party members publicly claimed that Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife, 47-year-old Sandra Roelofs, had betrayed voters by not taking part in a runoff race for an individual seat from the western district of Zugdidi. Roelofs remains on the UNM’s party-list, and is entitled to a parliamentary seat, but whether she will take it is unknown.
As is the ultimate outcome of the debate over Saakashvili.
The UNM’s political council gathered on October 4 to brainstorm about a future with little or no Misha in it, but failed to reach an agreement. In its post-meeting statement, the council simply focused on the one thing on which they all can agree – the perfidy of the hated Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian-Dream founder many see as Georgia's shadow ruler.
As is his wont, Saakashvili chimed in via Facebook, saying that a leadership change is a good idea, but should be made by the entire party, rather than its small, decision-making core. He also added that UNM leaders within Georgia “have to learn to take responsibility for their actions instead of pointing fingers at me.”
Arguably, the party may need to drop the U in the UNM if the bitter divisions continue over what to do with Saakashvili.
The UNM, though, is not the only Georgian opposition party busy reforming itself as the Georgian Dream busily forms a government.
Earlier this week, a longtime power couple – ex-Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili and his wife, ex-Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli – gave up on their Republican Party and are planning to start from scratch.
Another liberal leader, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, abandoned a second-round vote for parliament when the initial vote returns were barely in, leaving his Free Democrats Party to its own devices.
It’s the UNM, however, that gave the Georgian Dream the opportunity to gloat.
“There is big disarray in that party and nobody seems to want Misha anymore,” observed Georgian Dream MP Manana Kobakhidze, a former rights-activist. Whichever way the party rearranges its leadership, voters will always associate the UNM with the sins of Saakashvili’s presidency, she claimed.
But the changes on the UNM front are likely also to affect the Georgian Dream, which spent the last four years in power blaming Saakashvili for most of Georgia’s troubles.
“[T]he days of blaming the UNM period for the problems and obstacles Georgia faces today are over,” Caucasus analyst Lincoln Mitchell, a former informal advisor to the defunct Georgian-Dream coalition, wrote on his site.
If the ruling party spends another four years pinning problems on UNM misrule, fast fading from voter memory, it will come off as an admission that it cannot tackle current issues. That would mean not just the opposition, but the government will also need to learn to live without Misha.