Georgia’s Parties Need to Live Up to Citizens’ Democratic Instincts
Despite the ongoing political turmoil in Georgia, coupled with disinformation and extreme voices, there is also good news on the democracy front emanating from the citizenry. In a recent poll, nearly 90 percent of respondents said they were likely to vote in the October local elections, 80 percent that democracy is the best form of government, and 73 percent that more youth need to be involved. Notwithstanding their views on political parties, Georgia’s citizens are engaged and ready to be heard.
On a less optimistic note, however, 61 percent said that the country is moving toward more polarization and 54 percent of the likely voters are polarized between the two major parties. These sentiments portend further division. When partisanship verges on outright rejection and total demonization of other viewpoints, this creates opportunities for authoritarian actors. The art and act of compromise is the key to the effective functioning of any representative democracy. Georgia’s citizens and political leaders on all sides need to step back from the brink of explosive rhetoric and ceaseless partisan campaigning.
Each of the country’s parties looks at polarization differently. The ruling Georgian Dream does not see it as problematic or as urgent as do other parties. It came to power on a wave of popular dissatisfaction with the previous ruling United National Movement (UNM) and has stayed in office partly by stoking division and conflict. The UNM and other opposition parties are not innocent victims either, embracing the adversarial, zero-sum approach that has characterized politics since independence thirty years ago. The result of this political culture of no compromise is a divided political scene and society, with competition based on mutual antagonism rather than the positive platforms, messages, and leadership that voters want. And the divide is further stoked by a winner-takes-all approach to governing. Winning an election by a small margin only exacerbates polarization if the winning party considers it a mandate.
The problem is that any basic political advertising strategy includes “effective frequency”: if one hears something long enough and enough times, one tends to believe it. Examples of such widely held notions without basis in fact or analysis are that Mikheil Saakashvili will return to Georgia and lead a revolution, or that Bidzina Ivanishvili will bring the country under Russian control. Extreme views like these belittle politics and take all the air out of important debates that must be held in order to resolve serious issues.
Cooperation and Compromise Needed
One key principle Georgia needs to follow is broad cooperation among parties to establish strong and independent institutions. It has had thirty years of assistance from the United States and the EU for building an independent justice system, a strong legislature, and accountable governance systems. Yet, despite major progress, the country still has some heavy lifting to do. Seven decades of dysfunctional Soviet authoritarian rule could not be undone overnight.
However, Georgia has also missed opportunities that would have given it a better standing today with stronger outcomes across all sectors. Further progress can only occur if leaders learn how to compromise and cooperate across party lines and clearly recognize when polarization is destructive. The centrality of political compromise is even more important for institution building.
Independent institutions must have the public’s trust, serve everyone on equal terms, and implement the law transparently. Such independence is difficult to ensure if all institutions are influenced by political processes. The formation of and nomination to such independent bodies is where all parties, and especially the ruling party, need to compromise and involve the opposition parties in decision making.
For example, if the Central Election Commission (CEC) is to be an independent institution responsible for holding free and fair elections, its chair needs broad political support in order to have the credibility necessary for the job. If only one party decides who is in charge of the body organizing elections and counting the votes, the upcoming local elections could trigger another political crisis. Parties should cooperate, compromise, and appoint members of independent bodies on the basis of broad consensus, particularly in this delicate pre-election environment. Even though such cooperation was intended by the April agreement brokered by the EU to settle the political crisis since the last parliamentary elections, and even if it is difficult, parties must find the way to elect the CEC chair with the highest possible cross-party support.
Georgians want cooperation across party lines and an end to the decades-long problem of one-party domination. Seventy-seven percent of respondents in the abovementioned poll said that it is healthy to have multiple parties in power. It is clear that Georgians favor cooperation rather than further polarization. Parties need strong leadership to reflect their aspirations and to seek solutions rather than domination. Yet this is not what Georgians have been offered. Divisive and hostile rhetoric dominating the public space, in combination with the impact of social media and disinformation as well as malign influence, create chaos, not an environment that is resilient or self-reliant.
Georgia’s political shortcomings are also causing it to miss opportunities to be a leader in the Caucasus and far beyond. It is a strong friend of the West, but recognizes it needs to balance this with functioning relations with its neighbors, including Russia. In 2017 Georgia chaired the multilateral Open Governance Partnership, showcasing its democratic transformation. This leadership showed that it could also be a broker in the Caucasus and not only benefit from the resulting stability, but also from economic partnerships that could be game-changers. With U.S. help, Georgia has brought Azerbaijan and Armenia together to exchange prisoners of war for mine maps for the first time. Mines have killed nearly 30 Azerbaijanis since the end of last year’s conflict, so this act alone has saved lives and built trust where it has been sorely lacking for decades. So much more remains to be done, and the region and the world need a Georgia performing at its best.
A large majority of citizens across the political spectrum want Georgia’s parties to get back to work. This requires a collaborative approach that can help escape the dysfunction of the current political environment. Establishing political cooperation is easier said than done—even the EU-brokered agreement could not hold. But a vast majority of those in the poll who self-identified with a political party said wanted their representatives to sign the April agreement and end the boycott of parliament. Georgians of all political stripes want the divisive rhetoric to stop and the propagation of extreme ideas to stop.
Eighty-five percent of respondents said that economic development, unemployment, and uniting the country are the most important issues facing Georgia. Elected officials should look for common ground. For example, jointly promoting coronavirus vaccination would support a crucial goal all share in a country that has had the third highest rate of new cases per capita in recent weeks. A show of unity and concern could help all parties be seen as more genuine representatives of the people with their best interests in mind.
Another topic that would unite Georgians across the political spectrum would be defending the territorial integrity of a country of which 20 percent is occupied by Russia and pushing toward integration with the European Union. Citizens broadly support policies and actions that move the country toward achieving these core goals. A third set of reforms that would benefit from a non-partisan, joint approach is further moves toward broad-based economic growth based on market capitalism. Georgia has made great strides in developing alternative markets in the West, in reducing tariffs and taxes, and in creating the enabling environment for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises to thrive. Yet much more remains to be done. Parties jointly or in parallel reasserting such commitments will help drive domestic and international investment and repair frayed political relationships.
Georgians have a long tradition of gathering for what is called a “supra”: a place where people come together and, through toasting, celebrate each other, present, past and future. The supra is a place where they demonstrate their unity, hospitability, mutual respect, and ability to praise the best qualities in each other. All Georgians need to approach politics in the same way—while remembering that successful public service requires action, compromise, and an open mind.