A step back to the past?
The government of Georgian Dream failed to approve a constitutional amendment that would have led to a proportional electoral system implemented in the 2020 parliamentary elections. The majority of the state’s strategic partners in the United States and European Union, as well as local actors, are hoping that this amendment will finally end the two-party system tradition and push local political groups to start forming coalition governments. In theory, the necessity of co-operation will provide additional incentives for further democratic development. Due to disagreements inside the ruling party, the initiative failed and the population will elect a parliament with this new model only during the 2024 elections. Georgian political actors, including civil society representatives, assessed this incident as an attempt of state capture. Moreover, there are appeals to the larger population to protest and to force the “illegitimate” government to leave power. The united opposition has announced an ultimatum, demanding the resignation of Georgian Dream, the appointment of an interim government and a set of snap parliamentary elections with the proportional system. This situation is noticeably similar to the 2003 political scenario when Eduard Shevardnadze, at the time president of Georgia, announced his resignation and the Rose Revolution ushered in a peaceful democratic transition.
Some are already speaking about a Rose Revolution 2.0 and consider it a fight against Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili to liberate the state from the pro-Russian corrupt government. On the other hand, there are serious doubts about whether the revolutionary spirit or proportional system will benefit the state’s stability and democratic development.
Rose Revolution revisited
The post-Soviet space has been turbulent for years. In the beginning of the 2000s, coloured revolutions spread through the region and there were hopes that the new pro-western governments in Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003), Ukraine (Orange Revolution, 2004) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip Revolution, 2005) would promote democratic institutes, ensuring stability and prosperity. Unfortunately, Ukraine fell into endless revolutionary scenarios while Kyrgyzstan ended up returning to its pre-revolutionary corrupt political system. Only in Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement party managed to normalise the country and implement the basic democratic standard of regime change via (more or less) fair and transparent elections. This new tradition as an alternative to the long-lasting revolutionary approach was warmly supported and praised by the United States and European Union diplomats. But the normalisation came with a high price. Part of Georgian society, used to protests and appraisement tried to overthrow Saakashvili’s government from the outside for years and the post-revolutionary government tended to harshly suppress these attempts. They believed they were using legitimate actions to once and for all suppress the revolutionary spirit and make it clear that: a) political rivalry must be settled via political dialogue and b) power transitions should take place through elections. In general, despite various grave misdeeds during the brutal dispersals, both the US and European representatives shared Saakashvili’s main message. Eventually, Georgian society accepted the new rules of the game. The country became a success story and a land of stability in the region.
Today, the same people who were aggressively implementing the above-mentioned approach are undermining it. If the revolutionary scenario offered by the united opposition and supported by most of the local civil society succeeds, it will return Georgian political culture back to the past. The basic rules of the game will be broken and the street will become the platform for dialogue once again. The country will probably experience harsh consequences, including destabilisation of the whole region. Thus, it is crucial to ensure that both the government and opposition, in contribution with the state’s strategic partners, lead the state to fair and transparent elections that should remain the only model of regime change.
The idea of a shift to a proportional electoral system is not new. Actually, Georgia is already planning to move to this model by 2024. Its activation for parliamentary elections in 2020 was a political promise given personally by Ivanishvili to the local population after the June protests. The political opposition and its followers consider the proportional system more fair and transparent and are hoping that it will raise their representation in the main legislative body of the state. On the other hand, officials from the US and EU see this model as an opportunity to make the local parliament more diverse and competitive. Particularly, it may give other political parties a chance to enter political life, dismantling the sinful practice of a two-party parliament. Moreover, a multiparty institute may be a pre-condition for a new tradition – coalition government.
Generally, the idea and its logic are clear and accepted, but we should be ready for the possibility that instead of democracy promotion we will lead the state to permanent democratic crisis: the “two-party swamp” will be replaced by “multiparty bedlam”. Georgian political culture is at its rock bottom. Both, the government and opposition have no skills for political dialogue and currently, local parliament is more the wrestling arena rather than the house of political debate. Furthermore, the only thing these actors discuss is the concepts of traitors, the fifth column, agents of the Kremlin, and other topics that have nothing to do with the socio-economic issues like poverty and unemployment. Generally speaking, Georgian society observes a zero-sum game: the government tries to suppress rivals while the opposition tries to destroy the regime. So far, there are serious doubts whether more political actors included will lead to a plurality of voices or a plurality of craziness.
By and large, political actors in Georgia, with contribution from the state’s strategic partners, must ensure that elections are the only acceptable regime change model. No new revolutions are necessary and if the Rose Revolution 2.0 takes place, Georgia may be thrown back into the past from a success to a story of failure. Additionally, external and internal actors must think carefully and weigh the pros and cons before moving to the proportional electoral system. What is now considered as a chance for more plurality and democracy may actually lead to even more polarisation, pushing Georgia to an endless democratic crisis with an inability to form strong coalitions.
The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.