Voters in Georgia have had enough of turbulent politics. Their upcoming election is marked by apathy — and maybe that’s OK?
- By Pikria SaliashviliPikria Saliashvili works in Washington, DC. She writes about security and democracy in Europe and Eurasia.
Georgia offers a vivid example of a truly disenchanted society. Once a place of rapid change — and one of the former Soviet Union’s most promising bright spots — the Caucasian country is now mired in disillusionment.
This is the climate in which Georgians are preparing for their next national election on October 8. According to the latest polling by the National Democratic Institute, half of likely voters still don’t know who they’ll vote for.
The experience of the last 12 years, during which the country experienced two rapid political shifts, helps explain this situation. In both cases, voters wanted rapid change, but were disappointed when their new governments failed to meet their unreasonable expectations. Exhausted by this turbulent history, the country is now poised to move into a phase that’s marked more by apathy than hope — but one that also holds the promise of greater political maturity.
It’s worth noting how far Georgia has come. Under President Eduard Shevardnadze, once a high-ranking Soviet official, by the late ’90s Georgia was enduring endemic corruption, criminal activity, and economic decay. Even something as simple as getting a passport required paying bribes, and Georgians traded stories about a state minister who welcomed an elite criminal at the airport. So when the Shevardnadze regime rigged the results of the 2003 elections, the people’s pent-up frustration erupted into massive peaceful demonstrations that toppled the government. The Rose Revolution, as it came to be called, seemed to usher Georgia along a path from a crumbling post-Soviet state to a real democracy.
In the election that followed, Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party won an overwhelming mandate for their reform agenda, which was extended again in the next national vote in 2008. During its rule, the UNM fundamentally transformed Georgia and changed the public consciousness. Reforms came at a break-neck pace — sometimes as a result of questionable methods. In an effort to implement reforms as quickly as possible, Saakashvili and his entourage eschewed democratic engagement — the government, for example, using minor legal discrepancies as leverage to coerce businesses into investing in the tourism sector. Saakashvili’s party also failed to seek out public input.
The absence of civic outreach made for a populace that felt little connection to the reform process or the government. The detachment reflected Saakashvili’s authoritarian style of management, which favored top-down reforms. The eight-year rule of imposed change eroded public patience. A scandal about police abuses that surfaced right before 2012 elections channeled that frustration and turned the country markedly against Saakashvili. Combined with unrealistic expectations set by the Rose Revolution, the resulting wave of anti-establishment sentiment fueled an intense political polarization.
The beneficiary of this discontent was the Georgian Dream coalition, which rode its unofficial platform of “anything but the UNM” to victory in the 2012 elections. Georgian Dream was an unruly coalition of disparate parties that found its unifying figure in Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who had recently returned from Russia. The coalition capitalized on a wave of popular desire for change, bolstered by the allure of Ivanishvili’s personal wealth, to score a decisive win.
The change voters expected from Georgian Dream never materialized. Georgians see that the justice system still needs reform, that institutions are being further politicized, and that living standards are failing to improve. On the foreign policy front, the so-called normalization of relations with Moscow merely resulted in “creeping annexation” of territory and formal integration of the break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Russia.
Essentially, in both elections, Georgian voters were motivated by a hope of change that was based on unreasonable assumptions. In 2004, voters yearned for a rapid transformation from a failing state to a functioning democracy. In 2012, citizens anticipated a direct financial windfall from Ivanishvili’s billions and an effective economic growth program (even though his coalition had nothing approaching a working policy platform).
This cycle of expectations now appears to have exhausted itself. The fraction of Georgians who think the country is heading in the right direction plummeted from a high of 60 percent in 2012 to just 25 percent this July. A large majority believes that Georgia is either heading in the wrong direction or not changing at all.
Yet, somewhat paradoxically, one can make the case that this bodes well for democracy. To a certain extent, the disillusionment indicates a certain democratic maturity on the part of the Georgian electorate. “The pre-election mood is calmer than usual,” a former Ministry of Justice official wrote me from Tbilisi. He argues that the subdued tone of current political debate represents a positive step toward civil discourse.
The 2004 and 2012 elections revealed a profound gap between popular perceptions and the reality of what a government does in a democratic society. Many Georgians had remained wedded to the Soviet mindset that the government would take care of every aspect of their lives. This outlook led to a belief, for example, that Georgian Dream would pay off individual private loans and provide credit with zero-percent interest.
With those dreams now shattered, the elections may have taught the Georgian people to ground their expectations in reality. Yet the former official also notes that the relative calm reflects a deep societal apathy. There is a danger, he says, that this will stall reforms by easing public pressure on the government to deliver results.
Georgia’s main political forces are aware of the population’s sullen mood, and have abandoned the lofty campaign promises of hope and rapid prosperity. Instead they’re opting for measured assurances that they will pursue concrete and practical results, such as job creation and poverty reduction. So far, though, that message doesn’t appear to be resonating with the country’s voters.
For election-hardened and disillusioned Georgians, diminished hopes are the new normal. The shifting perspective represents a shift away from personality-driven politics and toward a more stable democracy.
In the photo, a couple walks past a wall with election posters in Tbilisi on September 18.
Photo Credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images