Georgia is embarking on a parliamentary election that is unusual by the standards of the surrounding post-Soviet region for being so normal.
There is a favorite to win the election on October 8—the current governing Georgian Dream party—but victory is not guaranteed. The vote is expected to be free and fair, despite the problem that outside the capital, the ruling party is unduly powerful and will easily win many seats in the contests for the country’s single-member constituencies. All the same, other parties can also expect strong representation in the parliament and may stop Georgian Dream from achieving an outright majority.
This is a stark contrast to Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party was awarded another crushing victory in the September 18 parliamentary election, or Azerbaijan, which holds a referendum on September 26 on constitutional changes that can prolong the rule of President Ilham Aliyev almost indefinitely.
That contrast by itself makes the holding of an election by normal democratic rules something that Western countries, and the EU in particular, should not just welcome but celebrate—and follow up with more support for Georgia.
This will also be the first election in Georgian history in which no big charismatic figure is dominating the headlines. Neither of Georgia’s two titans, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is on the ballot, even if they still lurk behind the scenes and give television interviews. For the first time since Georgia’s first free election of the modern era in 1990, there is no savior in sight, just a selection of ordinary politicians.
At the head of Georgian Dream’s party list is the current prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, a man credited with having lowered the political temperature in Georgia and with being a good manager. He is the clear favorite to keep his job after the election—and should he do so, he will be able to move out of the shadow of Ivanishvili.
The pragmatic Davit Bakradze heads the list of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which has rebranded itself to detach itself somewhat from the bad associations of the last years of the former president. In second position on the list is Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife Sandra Roelofs, whose cool temperament is a big contrast to that of her husband.
If, as expected, these two parties are the largest in the parliament, each will be represented by a professional slate of deputies that includes plenty of women.
But in the Georgian case, normality also means a fairly high level of apathy and cynicism. The most striking finding in an opinion poll commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute and conducted over summer 2016 was that 67 percent of Georgians said they were likely to vote, but 57 percent were still undecided as to whom to choose. Moreover, the poll recorded that support for democracy as a system of government had declined from 68 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2015.
The poll was conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, a sociological organization. Speaking to me from Tbilisi, Koba Turmanidze, its Georgia director, agreed that the findings were worrying but said they could be interpreted as a sign that Georgian voters were more mature and savvy than before about their politicians.
Turmanidze reminded me that Georgian politicians habitually promise voters everything under the sun. For example, Saakashvili told voters in the campaign for the 2008 presidential election that the breakaway region of South Ossetia was “a loose tooth ready for removal” and that it would take him a few months to return it to Georgia. In 2012, Ivanishvili promised massive increases in the state pension if elected.
“Expectations have always been higher than what parties deliver, so it is logical that there is a large number of undecided voters,” Turmanidze said.
Georgian politics is still prone to scandal, denunciation, and populist drama, all of which could influence the large army of undecideds. Last-minute voters could opt for the populist pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots of Georgia party, which might be able to win bargaining power in a parliament in which no party has a clear majority. Yet even this bad scenario would not be enough to constitute a tilt back toward Russia. The Russian brand is so toxic in Georgia that even the Alliance of Patriots presents a website in Georgian and English but not Russian.
Or the late deciders could choose the State for a People bloc, headed by the nearest thing this election has to a charismatic personality, opera singer Paata Burchuladze. Burchuladze is heading a loose coalition of parties and looks likely to clear the barrier of winning 5 percent of the vote and enter the parliament, thanks to his name recognition and generous funding from some Georgian businessmen. His ideological stance is rather unclear, and the party may just be a vehicle for his personal ambitions. But many of Burchuladze’s allies are disaffected former Saakashvili supporters, and his main contribution to the election may be to split the pro-Western vote and hurt the chances of two more reputable parties, Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats and the highly professional but not very popular Republican Party of Georgia.
All of which is to say that the outcome of Georgia’s parliamentary election may be a bit of a muddle—but a democratic muddle, nonetheless. If there is no clear result, it will be a test for Georgia’s other institutions—its president, civil servants, media, and courts—to keep the ship of state moving forward. Thanks to continuing state building in Georgia, there is every reason to believe that they can cope.
The outcome will also be a test for Georgia’s Western friends, who often also promise more than they deliver. Here, the European Union has done itself no favors. It promised Georgians visa liberalization after Georgia met all the criteria the EU had set—but it now looks unlikely that the European Parliament will manage to approve the deal before the election in October. Observers can only hope for a better EU performance when a new Georgian government is formed.