The recent parliamentary election in Georgia saw the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party defeated by the opposition Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. This election has been variously described as evidence of the strength of Georgian democracy, a turn toward Russia by Georgia, a victory which Ivanishvili bought by spending lavishly in the United States, Europe and Georgia, the end of UNM domination, and more or less everything in between. It is still too early to know the real meaning of this election, but it is possible to make some observations, and raise some questions.
This election does not make Georgia a democracy: Supporters of President Saakashvili, both inside and outside of Georgia, have argued that because there was a smooth transition of power, orchestrated by Saakashvili, Georgia is now a real democracy. Opponents of Saakashvili have come to a similar conclusion, arguing that the defeat of Saakashvili government now makes Georgia a democracy. There is some accuracy in both these views. By turning over control of the government, Saakashvili helped his country become more democratic; and by defeating one-party UNM dominance, the GD made Georgia more democratic. Nonetheless, Georgia today is still quite a distance from being a democratic country in a truly meaningful sense.
The UNM did not give up easily: It is significant that Saakashvili’s decision to concede defeat occurred after an almost year-long campaign of harassing the opposition, arresting opposition activists, limiting access to media and even going so far as to strip his primary opponent of his Georgian citizenship. While it is not possible to determine why Saakashvili didn’t simply steal the election, the explanation that it was the huge international election observer presence, as well as significant outside pressure at the key moment, was a decisive factor. It should not be assumed that a basic democratic impulse in Saakashvili prompted him to admit defeat.
Politics is still a zero sum game in Georgia: After being soundly defeated in the election, Saakashvili didn’t seek to assert his full constitutional and legal authority. Instead, he uncharacteristically turned over all the ministries and essentially the entire government to the GD. This can be interpreted in part to the UNM’s desire to accelerate the transition and respect the will of the people: but it also indicates that Georgian political institutions are not at the point where power and decision making can be shared by more than one party.