The statesmanship exhibited by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili following his party’s electoral defeat in parliamentary elections may give him more room for political maneuver down the road.
Especially in recent years, outside observers expressed concern about Saakashvili’s controlling governing style, even as he promoted a reform-minded and Western-oriented agenda in Georgia. His administration also drew criticism for blurring the lines between the state and the governing United National Movement (UNM) during the parliamentary election campaign.
But Saakashvili’s fast acceptance of the October 1 election results appears to have restored much of the shine on his political reputation, at least in the international arena. When it became clear that his UNM would not retain its parliamentary majority, he quickly conceded defeat and vowed to work within the constitutional system. Based on the preliminary election results, the Georgian Dream coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, will enjoy a solid majority in the incoming parliament.
“I express my respect towards the decision of the majority participating in the elections,” Saakashvili said in an October 2 address broadcast nationally. “At the same time, I thank those numerous [UNM] supporters who expressed their support towards the governmental course, presidential course and I am sure that in the future there will be no alternative to progress, to Georgia’s development, and we will all continue our struggle.”
The president’s strong endorsement of the will of the majority, and of the constitutional system, drew plaudits from the US government and other corners. “We’d like … to commend President Saakashvili and the UNM for graciously conceding when they lost at the ballot box,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said during her October 2 briefing. “This is a really important milestone for democracy in Georgia, but it’s also a really important democratic signal for the region and for other countries that are struggling to be democratic.”
Even some Saakashvili critics offered a tip of the cap. “His reputation has extremely improved,” said Lincoln Mitchell, an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. “He gets credit: when the writing was on the wall, he read it, got it, and acted accordingly.”
For experienced Georgia watchers, Saakashvili’s concession speech demonstrated why he remains Georgia’s most skilled politician. “He’s an incredibly talented politician who thinks way ahead,” said Lawrence Sheets, the South Caucasus Project Director for the International Crisis Group.
The question now facing Saakashvili is: what lies ahead for an indefatigable political player who’s still only in his mid-40s, and who, as Sheets noted, is “a big idea” type of thinker?
Of course, he will remain president for up to a year: he is wrapping up his second term, and presidential elections will take place in 2013. But in reality, lacking a parliamentary majority behind him, he has little formal power.
So what will he do after he leaves the presidency?
Speculation abroad, especially prior to the parliamentary election, focused on whether Saakashvili might strive to become prime minister. But experts in Tbilisi have discounted this possibility for a while, noting that Saakashvili sent consistently clear, but subtle signals that he had no interest in the job.
In the wake of the stunning setback on October 1, though, his political ambitions may change.
Even if they do, Sheets expects Saakashvili to keep a low profile for a while after he leaves the presidency, allowing other UNM figures to lead the party in opposition. Then, provided the circumstances are right, he might re-enter the political arena. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him turn on a dime,” Sheets said.
Saakashvili’s options, to a certain extent, will be dictated by circumstances that are out of his control. One such X-factor is Russia. No one is likely happier to see Saakashvili lose than Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who has not disguised his loathing for the Georgian president. Any potential change in Russia, especially one in which Putin lost his iron grip on the Kremlin, would make a Saakashvili comeback easier. As long as Putin is in charge, Moscow could be expected to do what it can to keep Saakashvili on the political sidelines.
There are also some unknowns in Georgian domestic politics that will help determine Saakashvili’s choices, including whether the UNM opposition bloc in parliament can remain united in opposition. There is also the matter of the Georgian Dream coalition’s unity. “What if … bickering [among coalition members] overtakes their ability to agree on anything?” Sheets said.
Saakashvili allies are confident that the Georgian Dream coalition will unravel. “These people … are an odd mix,” said Giorgi Kandelaki, a UNM member of parliament, referring to the disparate views of Georgian Dream leaders. [Editor’s note: Kandelaki previously worked as an editorial associate at EurasiaNet.org].
Even if his priorities shift, and he actively seeks to become prime minister at some point, Saakashvili would face a long and challenging post-presidential path back to the pinnacle of power, contended Mitchell, who has served as an “informal” advisor to Ivanishvili’s coalition.
Whenever the next parliamentary election comes, the UNM will be at a distinct disadvantage in the area of campaign financing, since it will not have the same kind of access to so-called administrative resources that it had during the just-held vote. In addition, Ivanishvili has deep pockets to potentially keep bankrolling the Georgian Dream coalition, should it remain a cohesive political force.
Being financially competitive in the next election will be “a big question” for the UNM, Mitchell said.
Justin Burke is editor of EurasiaNet.