“How’s it that we couldn’t get you to like us?” Nino Burjanadze, an opposition politician and erstwhile parliament speaker, cried out as a routine December 2021 interview with Palitra TV exploded in a sudden rant. Recovering from poor performance in two consecutive elections, Burjanadze was upset: like voters, like opposition, she fumed, unhappy that opposition politicians had to live up to unreal public expectations while the Georgian voters were far from perfect themselves. “How’s it that we couldn’t get you to like us,” the ex-speaker would repeat in despair.
Burjanadze was not wrong. She had tried everything: came to politics in the late 90s as an MP of Citizens’ Union, the then-ruling party, became parliament chairperson in the early 2000s, split with the ruling party to lead Rose Revolution in 2003, twice served as an acting president, split with the ruling party again (now United National Movement) to move into opposition in 2008, started flirting with Moscow to become everyone’s worst fear during every election campaign well into Georgian Dream rule – only to be re-embraced by Georgia’s fiercely pro-Western opposition as a faithful ally after 2020 post-election crisis. Burjanadze had tried everything, but voters were still unimpressed. Losing all hope, one of the most prominent politicians of independent Georgia retired into the shadows, at least for now.
Others are not so fast to give up, and as Georgia starts its pivotal election year, the political scene has been full of confusion and soul-searching.
Here is Nini and Dispatch with updates about the current travails of opposition forces trying to find themselves – and each other
All the single men
The 2024 parliamentary elections won’t be easy, and the Georgian opposition is well aware of this. It will be the first fully proportionally held vote since the independence, and whatever the ruling Georgian Dream party is going to lose by giving up the majoritarian system, it hopes to regain through the 5 percent threshold. With fragmented opposition – an inevitable result of poor performance and countless splits and spats in recent years – that 5 percent is enough to leave the votes of most parties unrepresented. Polls can only predict for sure that GD and UNM – two polarizing arch-rivals and current and former ruling parties – will make it to the parliament. The rest is a race to be a kingmaker – if there will be any.
Having failed to reassure the GD to lower the threshold, some smaller parties started preparing early. Right-libertarian Girchi – More Freedom allied with activist-minded Droa party, while Giorgi Vashadze, spotlight-loving eccentric leader of Strategy Agmashenebeli, teamed up with UNM, which – struggling with charismatic leadership – was happy to have him. The remaining scene is full of lone wolves roaming the streets and seeking each other out.
One such lone wolf is Nika Melia, ex-UNM chair dethroned last year. Melia finally quit UNM for good about a month ago, alleging informal rule and intolerance of critical opinion in the party, and wants to start his own thing. He took some local UNM members with him and will be seeking alliances with others. That could be MP Khatia Dekanoidze, another UNM refugee, or other scattered incumbent MPs similarly recovering from party spats. And there is also Nika Gvaramia, an opposition media personality and (former?) Saakashvili ally who left the jail last year following a presidential pardon. Gvaramia returned to life as a free man with a somewhat altered, more moderate identity, doesn’t hide his political ambitions, and dreams about a big project that would fight for nothing but victory. He says he’s ready to compromise and speak to “everyone”, but not much else is yet known.
Whose project are you?
Yet, if speculations are true, Gvaramia’s pardoning might become one of the definitive moments for the 2024 campaign. The move propelled President Zurabishvili into fame, leading some to wish and others to expect her to join the parliamentary race: after all, she might not yet want to waste her political capital in writing memoirs. Her chances are hard to assess, but she might attract some TikTok youth, liberals dreaming of being “properly” represented abroad, and voters alienated from GD but not wanting anything slightly UNM-connected. Zurabishvili has so far neither confirmed nor ruled out the prospect.
But should she run, her big competitor – or ally – can be For Georgia, the party of former PM Giorgi Gakharia. Gakharia, who might have a supporter base as quiet as himself, is yet to fully take the stage, only making periodical appearances just enough to remind the voters of his existence. Both Gakharia and Zurabishvili, however, will have a hard time brushing off allegations of being “Ivanishvili’s project”.
While lone wolves may struggle for campaign money, it is Lelo for Georgia that has resources but lacks identity. Led by former bankers and featuring (former?) progressives as key members, Lelo has tried to position itself as a moderate and competent force. Yet Lelo might be haunted by bitter memories of earlier alliances with UNM and will be among the forces that are more careful in choosing friends. The rest are smaller parties like Anna Dolidze’s For People or Aleko Elisashvili’s Citizens. While they are unlikely to make it through 5% alone, they have a good record of votes/resources ratio in past races and may become useful allies. Some pro-Westerners hope to see Nino Lomjaria, a popular ex-ombudsperson, in politics, but she has yet to make a statement.
Tough battle ahead
With every alliance, the opposition has to carefully weigh potential gains against risks. The ruling party already shows readiness to dismiss every political project as yet another “UNM” rearrangement and downplay the entire opposition as impotent. Some of this may indeed well match public perceptions: Most of the opposition parties are yet to come up with viable identities and aside from aspired “unity”, they will also have to demonstrate their differences – from each other and from the ruling party. And then they’ll also have to protect themselves from all the money, administrative resources, and social conservatism that the Georgian Dream will be directing against their opponents.
But more than social conservatism, it’s temperamental conservatism – or the aversion to radical change in the public – that might be GD’s best asset. Georgia is far from thriving, but with the world around them going mad, part of voters may prefer existing struggles over the potential new ones. Daily chats prove that GD’s claims about having spared the country a war have worked their magic in some parts of society. The government keeps announcing and re-announcing social subsidies to convince the public they are doing something to help the poor as well.
Positive campaigns to reassure the public of reliable and responsible leadership, including in foreign policy, may help the opposition win over voters. Negative and polarizing statements to push Georgians to simply vote against “pro-Russian” force might prove counterproductive, particularly months after Georgia secured the EU candidacy.
And there is a vast sea of undecided voters to work with. Polls show their share ranging from 25 to 50 percent of Georgian adults, but sociologists argue that about half of that 50% might be aware of their political choices but deliberately conceal them for various fears. Faced with illiberal governance but also a polarized social and political environment, one may choose to hide their pro-opposition sympathies but also pro-government feelings.
This still leaves parties with lots of indecision to focus on. Many voters make their political choices “ad hoc”, “in the process” or even “at the ballot box”, as sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili told Civil.ge in a separate interview. Well, in that case, there is at least some truth in Ms. Burjanadze’s like voters, like opposition theory: so far, ad hoc seems to be the right term to describe the way Georgian political parties also come up with their election programs.