For the past nine years, one party and one man have dominated political life in the South Caucasus Republic of Georgia.
That has now changed.
Since coming to power in November 2003, the United National Movement (UNM), led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, has controlled all levels of government, from the smallest municipalities and all regional authorities to the parliament, government and of course the presidency. The judiciary, police, media and many sectors of business have maintained close ties with the UNM.
The record number of voters who turned out on Monday to elect a new parliament and overwhelmingly chose the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, have now cracked that monopoly.
In a rare gesture in the former Soviet sphere, and as results were still coming in, President Saakashvili conceded that his party would go into parliamentary opposition and he would allow the Georgian Dream coalition to take the lead in forming a new government.
It was a dramatic turnaround. Until the release two weeks ago of sordid video footage of torture occurring in jail, few predicted the UNM’s defeat. But with almost all the votes now counted, the UNM has won 41.1 per cent to the GD’s massive 55.1 per cent.
GD enters a parliament that has largely been moribund, where dominance by the ruling party has meant that the legislature has shied away from aggressively overseeing public institutions and democratic debate has been limited.
Under the current constitution, the president appoints the prime minister and gives him permission to form a government. If parliament turns down the proposed government three times, the president can dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which would cause a political and constitutional crisis. The president also retains control over key ministries: justice, interior, defence and foreign affairs.
The country is thus entering a tricky period. Until 2013 and the next presidential elections, the newly elected and President Saakashvili will have to cooperate closely. This is a big challenge considering how, according to the election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the campaign environment was “polarized and tense, characterized by the use of harsh rhetoric and some instances of violence.”
Cooperation was made more difficult by Ivanishvili’s calls on Tuesday for Saakashvili to resign, coming just hours after the president promised to help launch the new parliament’s work.
A change in the presidency is unlikely, as GD won a majority but did not garner the two thirds needed in parliament to start the complicated process of impeaching the president.
Ivanishvili’s inflammatory statement was quickly condemned by the head of the biggest group in the European Parliament and by several members of the US Congress. Georgia’s foreign friends should continue to follow the situation closely, encouraging over the next year the kind of difficult co-habitation many of them work under in their own countries.
In the weeks until the new parliament is convened, the sides should build bridges and identify candidates for ministerial posts that both the president and the new parliamentary majority can agree on, a difficult enough task considering the lack of ideological cohesiveness of both the GD and the UNM. It is not time for finger-pointing and threats.
This is also not a time for revolutionary changes. While the GD has many highly competent personalities among its ranks, it is a coalition of six parties with no experience in governance.
In 2003, after the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili and his team fired not only high-level officials but also mid-ranking bureaucrats. For months, many of the country’s ministries’ long halls rang largely empty. Much of the backbone of the GD’s current support is made up of those who lost their positions in 2003. The country does not need another generation of left-outs.
Justice will be a key issue in the coming months. The recent prison scandal demonstrated how impunity fosters abuse, and underlined the importance of reforming a judiciary where less than 1 percent of all trials end in acquittals. Justice will not be served by a witch hunt against former UNM members. But it will if the new government can break judicial subordination to the executive and the prosecution, and not replace it with new allegiances.
The people of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not vote in the Georgia elections, and even a new government led by Georgians who have reached out to them over the years is unlikely to make them any more keen on rejoining Georgia. Ivanishvili realizes the challenges, but explains: “We will start talks with our brothers, of course with the involvement of Russia too. We cannot promise success, but the key is in Georgia and will be found if we build real democratic institutions.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that his party is ready for dialogue. But the divisions between the two countries are deep -- not least because Ivanishvili also emphasizes his commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.
Many are heralding a rare, peaceful transition in the former Soviet sphere between the UNM and the GD, but change in the parliament is only a first step in what remains a highly centralized presidential system. In 2013, a new constitution is expected to come into force, taking away some presidential powers. Saakashvili cannot run, and Georgians will once again go to the polls.
For the stability of Georgia and its neighborhood, the best way to get there is through transition, not revolution, one step at a time.
*Sabine Freizer in Europe Program Director of the International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org.