Why Georgia offers an important argument for the virtues of divided government.
Doom and gloom have dominated the narrative during the nine months since Georgia’s October 2012 parliamentary elections. Since the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition won a surprise victory at the polls over the incumbent United National Movement (UNM), chaos and polarization have characterized the political landscape. Cohabitation, in which GD’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili must share power with UNM rival President Mikheil Saakashvili, is frequently blamed. But what if cohabitation has actually been a net positive?
Progress remains uneven, but Georgia has managed to create the rudiments of a democracy. The new government was elected with a strong public mandate; the political opposition is vibrant, strong, and credible; the judiciary is less pliant; and the media environment is lively. At the same time, the country still suffers from many of the same structural deficiencies as its neighbors, including a chronic lack of checks and balances and underdeveloped institutions, making any change of government fraught with risks. Even necessary reforms, if implemented without care, can inadvertently impede democratic progress and undermine political competition.
Georgia needs stability and continuity in government in order to carry forward its ambitious reform program and its agenda of forming closer ties to the European Union and NATO. If the country’s leaders can tone down the political infighting, Georgia will be in a strong position to solidify its path towards democracy.
One particular challenge has been precisely the awkward cohabitation between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, where both command significant executive powers but lead rival political parties. Predictably, this has led to dysfunction, public spats, and policies that sometimes appear to have more to do with settling political scores than addressing the country’s substantial internal and external challenges.
And yet, while Western media have produced a steady diet of bad news from Georgia since the October elections, the reality hasn’t been all bad. Despite the May 17 anti-gay riots and the arrest of ex-Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, Georgia today is neither a minority-hunting theocracy in embryo nor in the throes of an anti-democratic crackdown. Similarly, cohabitation has become a byword among Georgia-watchers for the seemingly endless faceoff between the energetic-but-diminished Saakashvili and his enigmatic rival Ivanishvili. But beneath the hood, Georgia’s cohabitation has been quietly effective.
Before last October, Georgian politics was characterized by periodic cycles of winner-take-all politics. While the changes from the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia era (1990-1992) to Eduard Shevardnadze’s kleptocracy (1995-2003) to reformist Saakashvili’s rise to power in 2004 showed progress, each power change — invariably extra-constitutional — was accompanied by a purge of the old guard. Gamsakhurdia, a Soviet dissident turned nationalist agitator, presided over a comprehensive sacking of the Soviet bureaucracy. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, at least partially restored the pre-independence elite — only to take a pro-West turn later in his rule that paved the way for Saakashvili’s rise in 2003’s Rose Revolution. Saakashvili, seeking to take a cudgel to pervasive corruption and the kanonieri kurdebi ("thieves in law"), whose writ rivaled that of the state’s, unleashed Vano Merabishvili’s interior ministry in the (sometimes legally dubious) mother of all house-cleanings.
Because of the democratic nature of the most recent transfer of power, the new government is necessarily more restrained. Still, its motives regarding its predecessors remain unclear — as illustrated by the arrest of a number of former high-ranking officials within weeks of the new government coming into power. Some observers have seen this as evidence that the new prime minister is pursuing his own version of the familiar winner-take-all pattern, while others have defended his actions as an effort to observe the rule of law in a judiciary system that has been historically weak and politicized. It is, of course, important to hold individuals accountable for crimes and abuses committed in the past, but it is equally vital that justice is seen to be fair and apolitical. The presence of a vibrant multi-party democracy is essential to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
The October 2012 elections were not only noteworthy for their overall peacefulness, but also because they marked the first constitutional transfer of power in modern Georgian history. This has likely helped to moderate the usual winner-take-all pattern. But another reason is almost certainly that Georgian Dream’s accession to power was accompanied by a strong, well-organized, and experienced opposition (including the country’s president). Although the two parties seem more often at each others’ throats than not, the practical effects of cohabitation have put the new government under a political microscope to a degree unprecedented in modern Georgian history. Sometimes the opposition will overreach, sacrificing national interests for the transient tactical edge, but this is hardly an uncommon feature among even more consolidated, Western democracies.
The ruling coalition, falling short by fourteen of the 100 seats it needs for a constitutional supermajority, has to work within the boundaries of an inherited system rather than crafting one to specification, as was pro forma in past years. Even during normal legislative procedures in which GD’s simple majority is enough to push through bills, the opposition has highlighted shortcomings or provoked useful discussions resulting in stronger outcomes. For example, a GD bill to partially decriminalize entry into the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — though strongly opposed to by the UNM — has been modified constructively in response to some of the operational critiques raised by the parliamentary opposition. And earlier this year, the warring sides were able to lay down their arms long enough to produce a pro-western, bipartisan resolution on foreign policy.
Cohabitation and governmental gridlock teach an incredibly important lesson about the vagaries of democracy. It’s not always an efficient, straightforward process. But this can be a good thing. Although ineffective government is never a cause for celebration, untrammeled do-somethingism can be worse. Centralized, unchecked power may make big projects easier to start and finish. But an unchallenged executive also tends to overlook due diligence, often running roughshod over anyone unlucky enough to be in the way. This was exactly the type of perceived state impunity that helped push GD into power last October.
For those seeking the glamour of dramatic policy reforms or grandiose projects to celebrate national greatness, the day-to-day realities of governing in a modern democracy can seem a little boring. Georgia’s popular government, with a president and a large and active parliamentary minority in the opposition, is possibly more accountable than any other in recent memory. This may mean an end to overly ambitious projects, like the construction of new cities from scratch, but it could result in more democratic participation and pragmatism, such as restarting trade with Russia.
As Georgians prepare to head back to the polls for the October 2013 presidential election, the West should, above all, respect the democratic will of the Georgian people. But an election that results in continued divided government would not necessarily be a bad outcome. Cohabitation or not, Georgia’s long-term democratic and Euro-Atlantic prospects will be helped by an active and constructive opposition, no matter who is in power. At the same time, the often legitimate political differences between political factions should be kept within the family rather than being needlessly elevated into issues of international concern.
The idea that democratic government isn’t just about swapping one king for another needs to take firm root within Georgian political consciousness. Cohabitation has played a part in that process. An organized and relevant opposition, speaking for a significant portion of the population, can also fill this role. If Georgia is to shed its longtime inclination towards "pluralistic feudalism" — in which personalities, rather than policies or ideas, drive the political agenda — the maintenance of a viable opposition will be key. Few would argue that cohabitation has resulted in an ideal arrangement, but it may have helped drag Georgian politics into a new era.