Georgia Update 5/27: Saakashvili Comeback in Georgia?
Written by Brian Mefford
While Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili is clearly preparing the groundwork for the launch of his political party later this year, this has not prevented him from pondering a return to politics in his native Georgia. Georgia voters go to the polls on October 8, 2016 to elect a new Parliament in a contest that is viewed as a referendum on the performance of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgia Dream coalition, as well as a barometer on the public’s desire for a Saakashvili return to power. Following eight years of Saakashvili’s rule, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili assembled a wide coalition of “Misha” opponents to compete in the October 2012 Parliamentary elections. Due to Constitutional changes initiated by Saakashvili, most powers of the presidency shifted to the Prime Minister following the 2012 election. This move was of course designed to allow Saakashvili to skirt the two term limit for President’s and maintain his rule. However the move backfired as a prison abuse scandal combined with Saakashvili fatigue, resulted in Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) coalition winning a resounding 55-40% victory of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).
The following year, the Georgian Dream candidate for President won an easy 63-22% victory over Saakashvili’s party’s candidate. However, a weak economy and general disappointment with a perceived lack of fulfilled promises by the Georgian Dream coalition, have led to a sharp decline in the ruling party’s popularity since that election. In a recent IRI poll, 70% of Georgians said the country is headed in the wrong direction with just 16% saying the opposite. At the same, other polls have put the Georgian Dream party just slightly ahead of the United National Movement, and ratings have increased for a number of smaller parties.
Thus, if the election was held today, what would the new Georgian Parliament look like? Out of 150 Members, 73 are selected according to a proportional party list ballot. Any party that receives five percent is awarded seats from the list. Below is a compilation of five recent polls.
From the average of the polls, Georgian Dream maintains a thin three point lead over United National Movement. This has given speculation to a possible return to power of Saakashvili’s party in the autumn elections. However, this is not likely for several reasons. First, UNM is polling an average of 23% which essentially the same result as they received in the October 2013 Presidential election. In other words, there support hasn’t increased, but rather is flat lined. Second, UNM received just 40% of the vote in October 2012, at a time when they controlled all of the state administrative resources and most of the media. With nothing fundamental changed in the UNM structure besides the fact that Saakashvili cannot take an active part in the campaign (due to his presence in Ukraine and politically motivated criminal cases pending against him in Georgia), it is hard to envision a scenario where UNM could exceed their 2012 performance. Thus, UNM has a support ceiling of 40% – if not much lower. Conversely, Georgian Dream received 55% of the vote as an opposition force in 2012 and is currently averaging 26%. Granted Ivanishvili played an active role and spent freely to oust Saakashvili. However while Ivanishvili has moved behind the scenes politically, there is nothing preventing him from spending heavily again to ensure his party’s victory. Thus, Georgian Dream has much more upward support potential than UNM.
Next, the break-down of the majoritarian constituencies, which make up 77 of the 150 seats in Parliament, do not currently favor a Saakashvili return to power. While candidates have not yet been nominated, UNM has failed to win a single Parliamentary or other significant post since losing power in 2012. In addition, 13 of 33 majoritarian MP’s (mostly wealthy businessmen) left the UNM faction following their defeat to join the ruling Georgian Dream majority. Even if we make the unlikely assumption that UNM candidates will defeat the incumbents to reclaim those districts, it would only give UNM 51 seats in Parliament – far short of the 76 needed for a majority. The chart below shows the current breakdown of majoritarian MP’s by faction and party and even includes one seat for eccentric Ukrainian billionaire Leonid Chernovetskyi and his Happy Georgia Party (taken from the Georgian Dream total in Kobuleti).
Another complication for a potential return of Saakashvili to power in Georgia, is the rise of smaller parties. The 2012 election was a two party contest between UNM and Georgian Dream. However while UNM remains a unitary force, it has lost many MP’s and regular members. In addition, Georgian Dream has decided to break the coalition apart and have each party run separately in the Parliamentary elections this year. Other parties like the Free Democrats, led by Irakli Alasaniya, left the Georgian Dream coalition prior to this year. The Free Democrats are polling an average of 10% are likely to be represented in the next Parliament. The Free Democrats are in opposition to the current Georgian Dream government, but have been in opposition to Saakashvili for much longer. Thus, they are not a likely coalition partner for UNM. The sudden rise of opera singer Paata Burchuladze’s Development Foundation Party appears to be the new “flavor of the month” and the singer’s personal popularity has catapulted the party into third place in the average of polls. However Burchuladze’s long standing nostalgia for the Soviet Union suggests he is not a likely Saakashvili ally either. Another rising party is the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, a populist and nationalistic movement that emerged from the prison abuse scandal in the 2012 election. Once again though, their movement is clearly anti-Saakashvili in nature, which removes another likely faction in the next Parliament from being a potential partner. Other parties with possibilities to win seats in Parliament, such as Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement and the Labor Party, are openly pro-Moscow. Thus, among likely parliamentary parties following this October’s election, there are no easily agreeable coalition partners for UNM. Even if (and given the history, that is a big “if”) UNM was able to reconcile with former allies the Free Democrats and Republicans, they would still have just 56 seats in the next Parliament which is 20 short of a majority. If somehow UNM was able to win back the 13 constituencies they won in 2012 but lost due to faction switching, they would still be six votes short of a majority with no other realistic coalition partners to negotiate with.
Suffice to say, UNM’s time as a political opposition force in Georgia is not likely to end anytime soon. As a result, Mikheil Saakashvili is more likely to have his party win the most votes in a future Ukrainian Parliamentary election rather than a Georgian one. Either way, the former Georgian President remains a relevant political force in both countries.