Last week, Georgia experienced the first democratic transfer of power in its history. This is a tribute to the remarkable transformation the country has undergone during the nine years since the Rose Revolution brought the charismatic Mikhail Saakashvili to power. The President’s voluntarily abdication of power after losing his popular mandate in the elections has ensured an orderly transition. Now the newly elected government needs to work within the existing institutional framework to ensure the long-term consolidation of democracy.
Since 2004, Georgia has transformed from a state teetering on the edge of collapse to a modern, if not wealthy, state, unwavering in its aspiration to join the West. However, the defeat of the ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM), is a clear sign that the enthusiasm of the Rose Revolution has worn off among the Georgian population. After nine years in power, the UNM appeared to dominate all spheres of influence, including the economy and the media. International observers and Georgian civil society alike expressed deep concern that the country was slipping into authoritarianism. When Saakashvili launched a series of constitutional amendments in 2010, which will transfer significant powers from the president to the parliament in 2013, many commentators predicted he was planning on “pulling a Putin,” aiming to hold on to power as prime minister even after his second term as president expires. Saakashvili’s concomitant decision to relocate key political institutions to other parts of Georgia was also widely seen as a way of removing political opposition from the capital.
Most observers thus welcomed the decision by Georgia’s richest man, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, to bankroll a coalition of opposition forces under the banner Georgian Dream. Georgian Dream united many once-feuding opposition parties and put several prominent former Saakashvili allies on its electoral lists. While Georgian Dream’s entry into politics meant real electoral choice, few thought the opposition would garner enough support to end UNM’s virtual monopoly on power. However, the UNM launched a vigorous campaign against the new coalition, which retaliated with spiteful rhetoric. The increasingly acrimonious election campaign made many international observers warn of a lengthy and possibly violent aftermath, suspecting neither party would accept defeat.
However, the experts got it wrong. Even before the Electoral Commission had finished counting votes, President Saakashvili admitted defeat in a statesman-like address, and announced his party’s entry into parliamentary opposition. He then invited the opposition to form the new government. Most major commentators hailed Saakashvili’s ready acceptance of defeat as a testimony to the country’s democratic achievements.
Yet his pronouncement sparked another question: Are political institutions in Georgia sufficiently entrenched to sustain the return of contested politics without succumbing to excessive partisanship? Or does the future of Georgian democracy hinge on the whims of individual politicians? Saakashvili was not constitutionally required to go to the lengths he did in conceding authority over the government’s formation. As President, he is still formally entitled to pick the government, including the prime minister. By publicly repudiating this right, Saakashvili effectively prevented the opposition from forcefully contesting the election results, which could have led to a political crisis and damaged the democratic process. Thus, when Ivanishvili called for Saakashvili’s resignation, the momentum had already passed back to the President, and the demand was quickly recanted. Ironically, by departing from the designated “rules of the game” and “graciously” accepting defeat, Saakashvili managed the difficult task of restoring his personal credibility while maintaining the political initiative.
At the same time, Georgian Dream will face difficulties meeting sky-high public expectations. The newly elected parliament will have relatively little power to influence policymaking before the constitutional amendments enter into force next October and alter the power balance between the parliament and president. However, the greatest challenge for Georgian Dream will be to maintain its political unity. Suddenly left without the unifying force of opposition to Saakashvili, this will not be an easy task for a coalition consisting of nine parties with widely divergent political ideologies.
Yet unity is necessary. Without agreeing to a common political course, many key sectors of Georgian society in urgent need of reform will suffer. If they fail, Georgia might end up with a fragmented and paralyzed parliament and a population increasingly disillusioned with democracy altogether. The continuation of democratic politics in Georgia thus seems less dependent on Saakashvili’s “benevolence” than on successful intra-coalition negotiations within Georgian Dream.
The peaceful ousting of an incumbent government is in itself a triumph in a region where revolution, coup, and war have always trumped democracy. By his ready acceptance of defeat, Saakashvili has done what was needed at a time when many feared imminent political crisis. Now the new coalition government needs to prove its democratic credentials by showing that the “Georgian Dream” can become reality.