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UNM: Sink or Swim?

The United National Movement (UNM) has been traversing the moment of difficult introspection in the past days, trying to chart its course following the overwhelming victory of the Georgian Dream (GD) in the parliamentary elections. UNM will remain the largest opposition group, but reduced to being a 27 person faction in the parliament led by GD supermajority they won`t have the chance to affect policy.

Some UNM backbenchers, linked to the party founder President Mikheil Saakashvili and commanding strong loyalty of the party grassroots, say the elections were stolen by GD. They want the UNM MPs to boycott the parliament and to call on its supporters to hit the streets.The majority of the party’s chief body, the Political Council as well as all of its future MPs back a more constructive path of admitting the defeat, entering the parliament and using the parliamentary platform for accenting potential abuses. They stand accused of groupthink and “cabinet rule”, which threates severing the party from its mobilized grassroots.

Will UNM survive this crisis intact, or will it disintegrate and sink? We have asked long-term foreign observers of Georgia politics: Regis Gente, William Dunbar and Hans Gutbrod to share their views.

Regis Gente, Journalist, Radio France Internationale (RFI)

I thought since 2012 that UNM should have put Mr. Saakashvili aside, but they started to do this just during the last months.

Mr. Saakashvili did his duty in the Georgian history, with its positive and negative sides. He did it as a revolutionary politician, while Georgia has to enter a new phase of deepening of the democracy and of the institutionalization of the functioning of the State. That is the best that can happen to this country, for it to defend its sovereignty and to find its way in the future.

So, in my mind, the UNM was sinking before, but feel that they have started to swim again after these elections, by starting to break with Mr. Saakashvili. UNM started to swim independently already back in 2012 when they created their own internal body, the Political Council, chaired by David Bakradze.

Of course this decision is painful and it is also risky, because Mr. Saakashvili brings at least as many voters to UNM as he drives away from UNM.

 The survival of UNM is crucial for the Georgian democracy.

Georgian Dream (GD) is making exactly the same mistakes that Mr. Saakashvili did in his time, doing its best to not have an opposition, thinking that the opponent has no right to exist. Mr. Saakashvili paid heavy political price for that – if there were more critical voices in the country, he might have realized better the urgency of stopping abuse in prisons.

The degree of animosity between UNM and GD is counterproductive. Whatever we might think about either GD or UNM, each represents a real political alternative for Georgian citizens. GD is more statist, more social-liberal, and it is for non-confrontation policy with Russia (which is savvy in one sense). UNM is ultra-liberal and for a policy of zero concessions to Russia, since they feel that compromise with Russia denies Georgia chances of being a real, western-style democracy. Both political lines make sense.

In the long run, alternating between the two approaches depending on Russia’s behavior and the international context might be one way for Georgia to survive.

William Dunbar, Contributor, Economic Intelligence Unit

The UNM’s disappointing performance in the elections poses existential risks to the future of the party—and to Georgia’s continued efforts to emerge as a normal, mature democracy.

Georgian Dream’s super majority, as well as its not-so-secret plan to abolish direct elections to the presidency, leaves almost all the levers of the state in the hands of a party—and a man—implacably hostile to the very existence of the UNM.

The probable appointment of Irakli Kobakhidze—a noted UNM-phobe—as parliament speaker indicates the attitude GD is likely to take towards their political opponents. Expect to see more attacks on Rustavi 2 and increased pressure on local activists outside Tbilisi.

For the UNM themselves, demoralized and facing four more years in the wilderness, the next few months will be a major test. For the first time ever, the internal splits in the party have been on very public display: Sandra Roelof’s decision to pull out of the second round showed that the nascent internal democracy that will see UNM MPs take up their parliamentary mandates only goes so far.

Internal battle lines are being drawn between die-hard Mishists and a wing that wants to see room at the top of the party for new leaders who are less tainted by the past.

Not for the first time, the most important question in Georgian politics is “what do you think of Misha Saakashvili?”

There is a chance that these divisions, coupled with increased pressure from a revitalised Georgian Dream, could lead to a permanent split in the party, which would probably write it off forever as a credible government-in-waiting.

But the UNM has survived worse, and reports of the death of the party after November 7, 2007, after the August war and after the 2012 election all proved to be premature. Although the UNM lost both seats and vote share compared to 2012, the new parliament shows they are the only real opposition force in town.

This means Georgia’s western friends will have to give up their fantasies of a chimerical Alasania/Usupashvili bloc storming the battlements. It also means Russia has largely failed to turn its direct proxies into a significant force.

The UNM will now have to begin a long-overdue self-examination. When the party roundly rejected Saakashvili’s call to boycott the next parliament it showed that sensible voices were in the ascendant. Recent calls (from prison) by Gigi Ugulava for a new party chairman to be elected give us pause to hope that the party can renew itself, and can offer Georgia a credible alternative to GD in 2020.

Had they engaged in this process before the recent election they would have probably done a lot better.

If the Misha-or-bust contingent can learn to live with new blood and fresh ideas then the UNM could emerge as the first conventional political party in Georgia’s history: a group of people united around a set of shared ideas and overlapping policy goals that can survive electoral defeats and changes in leadership. That would be a welcome result.

Hans Gutbrod, researcher

The outcome of party processes involving a number of powerful personalities is hard to predict. As the saying goes, Minerva’s owl hasn’t quite flown, on where the UNM will be. One of the ways of tackling that question may be to identify a plausible mid-term strategy for the UNM. For that the party may want to look at its core strength.

Next to having a big vision, the UNM achieved its transformative succeses when it combined comprehensive innovation with being or enabling technocrats. There may be a role for detail-oriented competence in parliament, for the UNM to be onto policies (and on how these policies relate to ordinary citizens) even if this means a less strident public profile for a year or two, and may also imply that the government likely will take their best ideas.

The attraction of that route is not so much that voters want a factual debate in parliament. Many people say they want a constructive tone but do not reward politicians, or generally humans, that are quietly competent.

It may be a sensible strategy to settle into comfortable opposition, order popcorn, and watch the show

It’s more that the alternative strategies may be hard to sustain, given that it is many moons until the next election. Remaining in an opposition that is being drubbed, and not just at the ballot box, is hard to keep up for people who also have family obligations, kids to get to school, and other concerns that may seem trivial from Odessa, but matter when you face your spouse at the dinner table every evening.

It’s possible that I don’t see all the options, but it is not clear to me that there is a magic manoeuvre or quick fix for these travails, and more likely any such attempt may waste energy better invested into hibernation-with-intent.

So it may be a sensible strategy for the party core to settle into being a competent opposition, order popcorn, and watch the show for a while to see where the next political opportunity is. That will entail some reversals, yet the fact that Georgia is not in the easiest place geopolitically and economically can be a sweet spot for an opposition that plays the long game. It is not the most glamorous strategy to take but less heroic options sometimes help you stay around, which is not such a bad result when you are the only meaningful opposition in parliament.


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