Those who observed the reform process in Georgia fall into two categories after the parliamentary election. “Everything is lost!” some lamented on Facebook, while their opponents reacted to the outcome with the utmost cynicism.
Mikheil Saakashvili did not wait until the official results are announced that his party was switching to opposition, congratulated the winners and expressed a wish to work jointly for the benefit of the nation the next morning after the polling day, they said.
With 97.03% of the ballots counted so far, just two parties are likely to get into the parliament. Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream is leading with 55%. The United National Movement, the party in power until the election, ended up with 40.3%. The Christian-Democratic Movement, currently the parliamentary opposition in Georgia, led by former journalist Giorgi Targamadze, won a mere 2%. The party star Inga Grigolia, an ex-TV anchor, withdrew her candidacy in her district, closed her Facebook page and – according to the local media – joined a nunnery in Kakheti.
The election campaign overthrew the popular speculation of Saakashvili’s “totalitarianism”. Over 10 parties ran alongside his United National Movement in a transparent and competitive campaign. Three opposition TV channels have been mudslinging the president and the government, spreading the sharpest criticism and blatant lies in towns and villages – and nobody did anything against them. The print press was totally dominated by the opposition. The government has no loyal newspapers or magazines, therefore Georgia did not have the flow of ordered and paid articles that pro-government candidates pour on Ukrainian voters via the media.
Voter turnout was surprisingly low given the population’s high interest for politics. Nearly 40% of Georgians did not use their right to vote. These were mostly the middle class and the youth who are now more accustomed to expressing their opinion in social networks rather than in ballots. Villages were more proactive. The highest turnout was in Sachkhere, Ivanishvili’s small motherland where the oligarch arranged pure communism for his compatriots. For several years on end, a few thousand people have not paid for electricity, water or utilities – and why would they? The nice Forbes-list billionaire is paying for all that.
In terms of organization and procedure, the election was almost perfect. 60,000 observers gave positive reviews of it. The US Department of State, Congress members and the White House praised Georgian democracy. So did representatives of Brussels and Strasbourg. The European People’s Party disclosed a statement where Saakashvili and his party were referred to as the creators of “a truly democratic and European state.”
Saakashvili’s allies did better in first-past-the-post districts yet lost to the opposition nevertheless. His team lost the election in big cities, including Tbilisi, Batumi, Borjomi and Sighnaghi, which have undergone the most dramatic changes. One possible explanation of this popular opinion is that the changes have tackled many people, while massive construction and the shift of the usual “rural” lifestyle proved unacceptable to many.
The opposition won in all 10 districts of Tbilisi. That was the echo of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, voters who gave slightly more than 30% to a candidate like Giorgi Vashadze, the young Deputy Minister of Justice who implemented the brilliant and original concept of public service halls, in districts where people have really seen the improvement – in action rather than in words - can discourage quite a few potential reformers.
Mikheil Saakashvili gained significant support in all areas densely populated by national minorities. People there have both heard his frequent “I’m Armenian for Armenians, Azerbaijani for Azerbaijanis and the biggest Jew in the world for Jews” and have seen the huge work he has done to promote the interests of Georgians of different ethnic backgrounds. Over the past few years, the number of Azerbaijani students in universities has surged and some subjects are now taught in Georgian in national schools of ethnic minorities. This gives talented young people a chance to enter a Georgian university or make a career in Georgia.
So, is everything really lost now? Given the huge gap between what politicians say and do, projecting what will happen next is difficult. Most institutional changes, such as tax cut or the approval of the Charter of Freedom which de-sovietized the state apparatus and social environment, are protected by the Constitutional laws. Ivanishvili’s party does not have enough votes to change all this. Saakashvili’s party still stands a chance to act effectively as opposition which could amend the actions of the parliamentary majority and the government it will set up (the Georgian Dream has already announced that it will not leave a single member of the previous government in office). The presidential election is less than a year ahead in Georgia. That will be the time to see whether the Georgians have now made a fatal mistake.