Election preview: Georgia

The state of Georgia goes to the polls next Tuesday, together with the rest of the United States, to help elect a president, along with senators, representatives and various other positions. But the country of Georgia, in the Caucasus, gets in first: its parliamentary election is tomorrow, with the governing party seeking a third term in office.

Since regaining its independence with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has had a somewhat turbulent history. Its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was deposed after less than a year in office, and former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze was called out of retirement to take charge. He ruled for a decade before being overthrown in turn by the “Rose Revolution”, which brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power.

Saakashvili pursued a more aggressively pro-western policy; the country’s economy boomed, although there were concerns about the human rights situation. In 2008, however, Saakashvili blundered into war with Russia over the separatist territory of South Ossetia, and his popularity never really recovered. In 2012 a broad coalition of his opponents, Georgian Dream, won a parliamentary election: Saakashvili conceded defeat and appointed its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, as prime minister.

Although Saakashvili remained president for another year, the new government made constitutional changes to create a parliamentary system, with the president just a figurehead. (Ivanishvili himself didn’t stay long as prime minister – in fact the party went through another three nominees before settling on incumbent Giorgi Gakharia – but he remains influential.) In 2013 Georgian Dream’s candidate won the presidency as well, and in 2016 the government was re-elected with about half the vote and a huge majority.

It did so courtesy of the same electoral system that I criticised earlier this month in Lithuania: half the MPs chosen by proportional representation (with a 5% threshold) and the other half from single-member districts (over two rounds). With 48.7% of the vote, Georgian Dream had a majority of the proportional seats and cleaned up on the single-member seats, winning all but two of them.

But this story, remarkably enough, has a happy ending: the government, mindful of the fate of its predecessors, responded to popular protests and agreed to electoral reform. The threshold for proportional seats has been reduced to 1%, and the number of single-member seats has been cut to just a fifth of the total (30 out of 150), to be phased out entirely by the following election. No party will be permitted to win a majority with less than 40% of the vote.

That means that although Georgian Dream seems set to remain the largest party, the assorted opposition parties have a good chance of winning a parliamentary majority between them. If they do, it will be interesting to see how well their alliance holds up and whether they can agree on the formation of a government.

As we’ve remarked before, it’s been a pretty good year for incumbents in most places, with the health crisis tending to promote a sense of national unity. Georgia’s experience of Covid-19 hasn’t been good, but it’s been far from disastrous: its death rate is about double Australia’s, well below what’s prevalent in Russia and western Europe. Warfare between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan might also induce a sense that this is not the time for a leap into the unknown.

Ideological differences between the parties are a bit hard to pin down. Broadly speaking, Georgian Dream is centre-left while the biggest opposition party, the United National Movement (Saakashvili’s old party), is centre-right. Georgian Dream also tends to be less stridently anti-Russian, although there are some pro-Russian elements in the opposition as well.

But the main question is whether Georgians, with their repeated history of reformist leaders who overstay their welcome and have to be booted out, are once again ready for a change.

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