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When Elections Damage Democracy: Lessons from Georgia’s Presidential Polls

By Kornely Kakachia & Bidzina Lebanidze

Georgia’s recent presidential elections exposed many of the problems that have been hindering the country’s democratization over the last few years. By electing the country’s first female president, Georgia has made one step forward – but the violations that were documented during the vote represent two steps back in the country’s efforts to consolidate its fragile democracy.

Both international and local observers agree that the process of Georgia’s democratic consolidation is slowing down, and that fundamental democratic norms are increasingly challenged. As a result, the country finds itself stuck in a semi-democratic limbo with the ruling Georgian Dream party caught between the conflicting objectives of completing the democratization process and retaining political power. In addition, the main opposition parties are still haunted by the shadows of the past.

While many of the problems highlighted during the 2018 presidential election have been an integral part of Georgian politics for some time now, some of them, such as the political polarization and vote buying, have acquired new intensity. Below, we outline several key takeaways from Georgia’s most recent elections that undermine the country’s nascent democracy and its Euro Atlantic integration.

Polarization endangers media independence

The intense polarization of Georgian society is not confined to political parties only; it extends to other segments of public space. Extreme polarization and partisan reporting in the media are some of the most alarming issues, and they have endangered the role of the media as the fourth branch of government. The challenge is how to identify the thin line between polarization and pluralism in order to strengthen Georgia’s democratic development. Unfortunately, the main media outlets – especially the national TV broadcasters – essentially became instruments of political parties, harming their reputation seriously and raising questions about the impartiality of their reporting. The election coverage of major TV outlets was politically biased, to the extent that channels have been accused of professional ethics’ violations and of manipulation with facts. Sadly, the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB), which is funded by the state budget, also adopted a partisan editorial policy. While GPB has always failed to hold the government accountable, the challenge is now especially acute. Overall, Georgian media outlets are losing ground as the country’s political polarization intensifies.

Vote buying scheme threat to fair elections

The recent presidential elections also showcased many electoral malpractices; with vote-buying being one of the most prominent ones. The Georgian government’s initiative to write off the debts of 600,000 Georgian citizens was described by local watchdogs and international observers as an unprecedented example of vote buying. Vote buying as a political malpractice is closely associated with economic underdevelopment and social hardship, making Georgian citizens especially vulnerable to this type of electoral manipulation. Vote buying undermines the very meaning of elections as a central element of procedural democracy as it forces voters to trade their votes for short-term economic benefits, rather than making a conscious choice based on their own values and political preferences. Broadly speaking, vote buying obstructs the democratic process in Georgia by interfering with the rights of citizens to freely decide who will represent them and their interests. It also undercuts the ability of Georgian citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.

Monopolization of political processes

In Georgia, unlike in Western democracies, parties are not the most important actors in the political system and do not serve the purpose of connecting the citizenry to the decision-making processes. While parties in Western democracies are independent organizations with strong internal party democracy, there are just two main political forces in Georgia – the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement – owned respectively by charismatic leaders Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili. The 2018 presidential election once again confirmed that only these two individuals are capable of mobilizing the huge financial, political and media resources needed to compete for elections and no one – inside or outside their parties – is able to cap their authoritarian instincts. This state of affairs seriously undermines the democratization process: monopolization of vast resources leaves other political actors out of the game and deprives the country of any real opportunity to hold fair elections. If left unchecked, this tendency may drive Georgian politics toward more radical polarization, which could have serious consequences for Georgia’s unconsolidated democracy.

The inherent weakness of the opposition

The main opposition parties showed more maturity in the recent elections by putting aside their differences and supporting the opposition candidate in the second round. Georgia’s recent history shows that opposition parties have to join forces in order to change the party in power. It now appears unlikely, however, that opposition parties will manage to unite for the crucial 2020 parliamentary elections. In addition, although the majority of the population is dissatisfied with the performance of the ruling party and is open to change, opposition parties failed to successfully mobilize the protest electorate. Continued failure of opposition parties has a long-term negative impact on Georgian democracy as it contributes to the consolidation of Georgian Dream’s one-party governance and to the frustration of the electorate.

Politics of demonization

The Georgian opposition is not only weak and fragmented; it has also been successfully demonized by the ruling party. While the authorities managed to consolidate their voters by mobilizing their enormous resources, opposition forces failed to attract the moderate, undecided voters who had the ability to influence the election results. Neither of the political forces managed to avoid the aggressive and negative campaigns that have alienated voters from the electoral process. The Georgian Dream has framed every election since 2012 as an exclusive battle between the former ruling United National Movement party and the Georgian Dream, the latter being the lesser evil. In the recent presidential elections, the United National Movement made that false narrative particularly effective as the party showed that it remains dominated by Mikheil Saakashvili and his radical political agenda. The current dynamics between the two parties has a negative impact on political pluralism in Georgia as efforts to divide and marginalize by both sides shape the voters’ political (mis)perceptions and judgments. This is particularly true, as voters live in alternative realities defined by partisanship, which creates deep divides in society and encourages increasing partisan antagonism and political extremism.

Western indifference: new normal?

International election observation missions noted many irregularities during the 2018 elections. Yet, the official position of the EU and many Western countries was more balanced. The international community moved quickly to endorse the election by promptly congratulating the winner and somewhat downplaying the vote’s shortcomings. In doing so, the West indirectly bolstered the position of the ruling party and reduced the opposition’s ability to raise its legitimate concerns about election violations. Moreover, the lack of criticism by the West may also be understood by the ruling party as a free pass to continue the same non-democratic practices in future elections, which may have disastrous consequences on the 2020 parliamentary election.

The way forward

The recent presidential elections once again confirmed the stagnant condition of Georgia’s fragile democracy. It showed that the country has been failing to live up to its democratic commitments, and has continued solidifying its hybrid or semi-democratic practices with a dominant party system, politicized judiciary and competitive but not fully democratic elections. Some of the challenges listed above, such as media polarization, political demonization or opposition’s weakness, are recent additions to the long list of problems that have been inhibiting the Georgian democracy in recent years. Unlike in most developing democracies, where it is usually the government causing poor democratic performance, in Georgia’s case, the opposition also bears part of the blame. Hence, all key actors, including the government, opposition and civil society, need to work hard to push forwards the country’s democratic consolidation.

Prof. Kornely Kakachia – Director, Georgian Institute of Politics
Dr. Bidzina Lebanidze – Senior Analyst, Georgian Institute of Politics .

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The article was prepared with the financial support of the National Endowment for Democracy. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Georgian Institute of Politics or the National Endowment for Democracy.

This article originally appeared on the Georgian Institute of Politics. It was reposted with minor modifications.

This post is also available in: Georgian

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