Over a year and a half remains until Georgia's next major election, but a recent intra-party leadership race has struck another blow to the country's beleaguered opposition.
This weekend saw the dethroning of Nika Melia as chairman of the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia's former ruling party (2004-12) and most powerful opposition force. While the new chairman, Levan Khabeishvili, had expressed dissatisfaction with Melia's leadership qualities, many attribute his win to the pervasive sway of notorious shadow figures in the opposition.
"I wish Levan [Khabeishvili] much success, he is currently not the problem," Nona Mamulashvili, a second-tier contender in the race, said after the results became known on January 30. "The problem is that, in the big picture, money and informal influences won out over policy."
Over 40,000 people voted in the elections held online on January 28-29. Khabeishvili received over 52 percent, easily outperforming Melia, who came next with 40 percent. The poll was scheduled after a group of UNM members called for elections last November citing reasons that included the need to strengthen "intra-party democracy."
But what was supposed to be a showcase democratic campaign quickly degraded into months of mutual accusations and polarizing divisions among various UNM factions.
The most controversial of the accusations raised by Melia and his supporters – and shared by many observers outside the party – was that behind the leadership challenge were attempts by two powerful party veterans to pull the strings from behind the scenes.
One of the alleged culprits is Vano Merabishvili, the influential interior minister under UNM rule who had served seven years in prison on multiple power abuse charges. Another is Davit Kezerashvili, a former defense minister who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia on charges of embezzlement while in office. Kezerashvili, who currently lives in self-imposed exile, is also a founder of pro-opposition Formula TV.
And the elections came while UNM's founder and most prominent figure, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, continues to struggle with deteriorating health in jail, where he ended up upon his controversial return from longtime exile in 2021.
"I have much respect for Nika Melia, I think he is a hero, but now I congratulate Levan Khabeishvili and wish him huge success," Saakashvili's mother Giuli Alasania cited the ex-president as saying after the elections. He also passed on his wishes for the party to remain united.
While the strategy to rescue Saakashvili topped the campaign agenda of UNM chairmanship candidates (with Khabeishvili particularly devoted to the idea), the former president himself was quiet during the race. Saakashvili is believed to remain the key factor behind the stable support that the party enjoys from its base. Yet it is unclear whether he had any influence over the outcome of the election.
One thing that is clear to many, however, is that the race and its outcome have played into the hands of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
The ruling party has for years faced backlash over the alleged shadow influence of its founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom his critics have long described as an "oligarch." Georgian Dream leaders have hit back by claiming that opposition figures such as Kezerashvili are the true oligarchs. The debate has intensified as Georgia tries to push anti-oligarchy laws to meet the EU's conditions for membership candidate status.
Apart from adding credence to a ruling party narrative, the UNM's latest debacle is indicative of the desperate state of the Georgian opposition overall. And it could help extend the electoral winning streak of Georgian Dream, which has been in power for over a decade now.
"It's time to bring together new forces," Mamuka Khazaradze, leader of the opposition Lelo for Georgia party said in an apparent attempt to distance his party from what the UNM has become. "The past, shadow rule must end in this country and in Georgian politics!"
Khazaradze, a banker-turned-politician, initially positioned his party as an alternative to the heavily polarized political scene split between the two poles of UNM and Georgian Dream.
But because of that same polarization, Lelo became one of many smaller opposition parties unable to escape the pressure to join forces with the UNM, as they did in 2021's municipal elections.
Such alliances bring a high price. The UNM, while being the clear leader in the opposition with its steady support base, also remains the most unpopular among Georgian parties: Recent polls have shown that it tops the list of forces Georgians would not vote for "under any circumstances." This attitude is linked to memories of some of the darker aspects of UNM rule – involving figures such as Vano Merabishvili – which Melia had tried to leave behind.
According to the same poll, commissioned last September by the International Republican Institute (IRI), 25 percent of Georgians would vote for the ruling party in elections, followed by the UNM with 12 percent, with no other party making it past 3 percent.
This illustrates the challenge facing the opposition ahead of the next parliamentary elections in fall 2024, where there will be a 5 percent threshold for parties to win seats by proportional rule.
Several of Georgia's smaller opposition parties have emerged from the UNM after key figures decided to strike out on their own. Some of these parties, including Girchi and European Georgia, then saw further splits, giving birth to a bigger number of even smaller forces.
Others, like For Georgia, led by former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, came into existence after a falling-out with the ruling party.
And there are those from more independent backgrounds, like the For the People party led by Anna Dolidze, a lawyer and the opposition politician with the highest favorability (albeit with low name recognition). But this last category in particular struggles to clear the financial hurdles that accompany electoral politics.
All these forces will have to come up with balanced strategies to survive in the coming years, offering a real alternative to Georgian Dream while avoiding being identified with the UNM. The IRI poll also showed that, in a country with numerous social and economic problems and where trust in political parties is extremely low, many struggle to find a single party that represents their interests, and the majority want to see new parties emerge.
But there are also those who observe the current divisions in the UNM with a glimmer of hope, and argue this may end the bipolarity that has been eating away at Georgian democracy.
"The process going on is beneficial as the authorities will now struggle to portray the UNM as an axis of evil, as a second pole. This argument has lost its strength," Gia Khukhashvili, a prominent political commentator, told Interpressnews on January 30. "And this, in my view, is good for Georgia in terms of establishing multi-party democracy."
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.