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Georgia: the Populist Break-in
The Clarion, Tbilisi / 16 Nov.'16 / 23:29
Tornike Zurabashvili

 The Rise of liberal Populism in Georgia

As the West continues to struggle with the consequences of financial and humanitarian crises, European liberal democracies have come under heavy pressure from insurgent political parties. These parties are newer, smaller and considerably more radical than their traditional counterparts. Their approval rates are growing rapidly as popular resentment towards established political parties widens and the voters yearn for electoral change.

The insurgents are challenging some of the core tenets of contemporary liberal democracies. They resent cosmopolitism, be it of political, economic or cultural nature. Their crude rhetoric is pitting the "ordinary people” against the "corrupt political elites”, while their "blood and soil” politics are awakening the long-dormant nationalistic and religious sentiments. Domestically, they favor closed borders, oppose immigration and prefer direct democracy over the rule of elected officials and civil servants. Externally, they are skeptical about the European Union and NATO, and show sympathy for the Russian Federation and its authoritarian leader.

More often than not, these parties lack ideological consistency and with that, are defying the basic left-right dichotomy of traditional party politics. The insurgents come from across both sides of the bench, but they are neither entirely left, nor entirely right. Rather, they are part of a growing political phenomenon, which has sprung across the western world in the last few years and which can be best described as illiberal populism.

Their record is impressive. Across Europe, the populists have successfully forced the mainstream politicians to adopt their policy agendas and pushed the traditionally centrist-leaning parties away from the political core. Their electoral fortunes have been steadily growing: the populists are represented in parliaments of almost all European countries and their overall shares of cabinet offices are increasing year-by-year. The populists have caused seismic political shifts as well, as demonstrated by BREXIT and the recent elections in the United States of America.

Georgia has been no exception to this growing phenomenon. The populists have pulled a surprise result in Georgia’s Parliamentary Elections last month. The Alliance of Patriots, the third party to enter the parliament and the youngest of the three, has cleared the five percent threshold and obtained six parliamentary mandates, leaving much older and more skilled liberal "third parties” far behind the electoral bar.

Saakashvili’s Cultural Revolution and its Backlash

The Alliance of Patriots has a long history of challenging the mainstream politics. Established in 2010 under the name of the United Popular Resistance Movement, the group was fiercely opposed to what it regarded as President Mikheil Saakashvili’s "tyrannical regime.” Incidentally, the Resistance Movement refused to accept politicians within its ranks and ended up recruiting conservative civic activists and cultural intelligentsia mostly, in an apparent attempt to underline its "societal” foundations.

It is not by chance that these two groups forged an alliance against Mikheil Saakashvili. When Saakashvili and his team of young, western-educated and NGO-trained mavericks came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, the country’s new rulers embarked upon an ambitious plan to transform the country into a modern state with a modern society. The soviet-style bureaucracy was eliminated overnight. Business regulations were lifted and borders opened for immigration. At the same time, the government invested heavily in the societal transformation, the process of "mental revolution” as dubbed by the Economist and boasted by Mikheil Saakashvili on numerous occasions. In their pursuit of "mental revolution”, Saakashvili and his political allies advanced radical educational reforms, including the recruitment of native English, French and German speakers to teach in Georgia’s public schools and launching the state scholarships for Georgian students enrolled in top western universities. This, coupled with Georgia’s extreme exposure to the progressive social agenda of western aid agencies, have slowly brought the issues of gender equality, tolerance, secularism and multiculturalism to the fore of the political discourse.

Breaking with the past did not come easy, however; not everyone was on board with Saakashvili’s bold reforms. The cultural intelligentsia found itself alienated, as many of their social and political privileges disappeared, while the country’s conservative and religious segments felt angry, as they saw their social status and traditional patriarchal norms erode. So when Bidzina Ivanishvili, an ascetic billionaire philanthropist entered politics, the disgruntled voters flocked to the political newcomer. Ivanishvili was the men to like; with history of cultural and religious philanthropy and his populist promises of more jobs, interest-free loans and pension increases, Ivanishvili managed to win the hearts and minds of the Georgian electorate and defeated the ruling party in a landslide victory.

The Resistance Movement was actively involved in these processes. Like many of the anti-government political parties and public movements, the group rallied behind Ivanishvili and his hastily-assembled Georgian Dream coalition. The new government’s U-turn from its pre-election promises and its gradual adjustment to the political center, have cost Ivanishvili the overall popularity, as well as the allegiance of the Resistance Movement. While some of the members of the Resistance Movement stayed loyal to the new government, the more radical segments went on establishing the Alliance of Patriots in early 2013.

In contrast to the single-issue nature of its predecessor, the newly-established Alliance of Patriots adopted a broader political platform, a mixture of economic populism, romantic nationalistic and nativist, Georgia-first approach. The party heavily criticized their former partners of failing "to restore justice”, the coalition’s campaign catchword of multiple interpretations, ranging from bringing the UNM officials to justice, to restoring the past entitlements of previously-marginalized societal groups.

The party’s ideology and its history of anti-establishment and anti-government activism has quickly found admirers among the country’s most conservative voters - men, ethnic Georgian, religious and over 50 – the group, which has had sensed decline under Mikheil Saakashvili and was increasingly unhappy with the liberal features of the new government.

Since its establishment, the party has gradually increased its electorate; in 2014 Municipal Elections the Alliance of Patriots won an unexpected 4.72 percent of aggregate votes and in 2015 majoritarian by-elections in Sagarejo District, the party was close to producing a major electoral upset for the ruling coalition, when its nominee narrowly lost to GD candidate with 49.5 percent to 45.8 percent. This time as well, the Alliance had all it takes to score big in the polls: nonstop media coverage through the party-affiliated Obieqtivi TV and radio stations, private and business donations worth as much as that of the United National Movement and the partial endorsement of Bidzina Ivanishvili. To further consolidate its niche voters, the Alliance of Patriots teamed up with five small socially conservative political parties ahead of the elections.

The Party of "the People”

The ideology of the Alliance of Patriots is a textbook example of contemporary European illiberal populist movements. Its left-leaning socio-economic views combined with social conservatism and nativism, draws parallels with the worldviews of some of the most vocal right-wing populist parties in Europe, including the National Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary and the Golden Dawn in Greece.

At the core of the Alliance’s ideologyis the faith in the wisdom of the "ordinary people”, "the Georgian people” or "the decent men”, who have long suffered from dishonest elites. The culprits vary, ranging from the United National Movement, to "foreign-funded” NGOs and "the liberals” more broadly. It is in that very vein, that the party favors the rule of "the people”, including through referenda, plebiscites and precinct-level advisory councils. The party believes that "the people” need to be able to annul laws and government decisions, as well as to recall elected officers, including the president, cabinet members and local officials.

The Alliance of Patriots supports protectionist measures and is particularly generous on welfare spending. The party pledges to decrease the state pension age and provide free housing, healthcare services, food, clothing, transport and medications to the socially vulnerable. It also promises to establish a state-sponsored fund for providing non-interest loans and property, as well as the state-funded lawyers, accountants and managers to start-up businesses.

The Alliance’s electoral manifesto speaks at length on the "Georgian way of thinking” and the virtues of preserving the Georgian culture and values, its polyphonic singing, traditional dances, poetry and Supra - the traditional Georgian form of dining. The Alliance’s blend of romantic nationalism and its nostalgic appeal to the past glories of Georgia, is most vividly exemplified by the Party Chairman David Tarkhan-Mouravi, the soft-spoken former official in Eduard Shevardnadze’s administration, who claims to be the direct descendant of the last king of Georgia.

The Alliance declares its loyalty to the Georgian Orthodox Church, as it proudly displays the religious symbols in their campaign materials and advocates for increasing the state subsidies for the Church. The party believes in the sanctity of the traditional family unit and passionately rejects any expression of progressive social norms, including gay rights and gender equality.

The Alliance of Patriots is extremely suspicious of the outside world. The party vows "to defend Georgia’s interests abroad” but not the "interests of Washington, Brussels and Moscow in Georgia”. The Alliance is a fierce opponent to immigration, particularly from Turkey, which it regards as expansionist and accuses it of wanting to "capture Abkhazia and Adjara”, two of the country’s westernmost regions.

The party does not openly oppose Georgia’s western orientation. Instead, it portrays the prospect of NATO and EU membership as illusory and presents it as a disproportionally high burden for Georgia’s security and economy. In its electoral manifesto, the Alliance writes that "NATO can become an instrument for Georgia’s progress”, but at the same time, adds that "NATO aspirations might break the country into pieces.” The party’s stance towards Russia and the Eurasian Union is equally ambiguous; the Alliance believes in the "politics of balance”, but at the same time, says that "even if Georgia wanted to join the Eurasian Union, there are neither preconditions nor opportunities for that”.

The Liberal Reactions

When Central Election Commission announced preliminary election results and it became apparent that the Alliance would enter the parliament as the third biggest party, it sent shockwaves across the social media. The "escape to Canada” moment was soon replaced with ridiculing, as liberal activists came to discover the party’s utopian promises and listened to the Alliance leader’s quasi-scientific TV sermons. The third step – a sober introspection – was however, missing.

The liberals have many a reason to contemplate. With a nativist and EU- an NATO-skeptic Alliance of Patriots making it in while the more progressive "third” parties failing to do so, it is inevitable that the newly-elected parliament will be more nativist and more socially conservative. The Georgian Dream government has already walked into a populist trap, when it initiated a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, in an attempt to meet the demands of conservative and religious activists ahead of elections. With its poorly principled ideological standing and its history of extracting the electoral gains through populist measures, the government might be tempted to appease its conservative constituents again.

The consequences are worrying, but not apocalyptic. The rise of the Alliance of Patriots is neither the harbinger of a radical political overhaul, nor the end of the liberal consensus in Georgia. The United National Movement is still the strongest opposition force. The ruling Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia, whose wonky decisions have indeed raised a few eyebrows, still formally runs on a broadly progressive platform. The Alliance’s longer-term influence on the political debate is, for now, very limited. As evidence suggests, once insurgents joint the political process, they find themselves lost in the technocratic doings of mainstream politics and struggle to maintain their electoral appeal.

But the advent of populism still tells a story. The rise of the Alliance of Patriots and the crushing defeat of liberal third parties should be a warning sign for the country’s political elite. Georgia’s liberal politicians and activists, whose words and doings have become increasingly technocratic and out of touch from average voters, are no longer drawing the same emotions as in the early days of Mikheil Saakashvili’s mandate.

If Georgia’s liberals want to advance their agenda and check the populist inroads, they need to be prepared to make a strong case for their positions, debating, rather than dismissing the most controversial issues on conservative agenda.

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