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What future for Georgia’s Liberal Center?

Q: In the immediate aftermath of the elections we saw several parties that positioned themselves as liberal and pro-European implode – Free Democrats, Republicans, Girchi. What do you make of this and what impact, if any, would this have on Georgian politics in the 4 years to come?

Tom de Waal, Hans Gutbrod, Ted Jonas and Lincoln Mitchell weigh in.

Tom de Waal, Senior Associate, Carnegie Europe

The defeat of small liberal parties and of some of the leading men of Georgian politics such as Irakli Alasania and David Usupashvili is certainly a blow for Georgia and its Western friends.

Obviously, it is the fault of politicians first of all if the voters do not back them. For various reasons these parties failed to connect with the electorate. And had the Free Democrats and Republicans managed to form an alliance they would now undoubtedly be represented in parliament.

I also think these politicians, who were preaching a more moderate and nuanced message, were the unfortunate casualties of a low turnout and Georgians’ disillusionment with politics in general. That had the perverse result of strengthening support for the two main parties. Now the non-voters should reflect on George Jean Nathan’s warning that “Bad officials are elected by good people who do not vote.”

The bigger picture is, that despite some progress, Georgian political culture is still quite immature. Politicians still throw tantrums and freely accuse their opponents of being traitors or pro-Russian agents. They promise massive pension increases or miraculous outcomes, confident that no one will hold them to account. The television channels feed on gossip and conflict. That leaves little space for those who want a more honest policy discussion.

This is of course part of a wider zeitgeist in which Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Marine le Pen and Nigel Farage have thrived by making undeliverable promises and kicking the doors of the old establishment. That is why I have described Alasania and Usupashvili as “superfluous men” in the analogy of characters from 19th century novels. It is a description that fits many other European politicians, from Russia’s Grigory Yavlinsky to Britain’s Nick Clegg. They have the right ideas and talents but fail to turn that into mass support.

I fear that the sad truth is that Georgia’s liberals will only get a second chance when other more populist and less competent politicians have been given the opportunity to crash and burn. We can only hope that they do not cause too much damage in the meantime.

Hans Gutbrod, Researcher

It is tempting to treat the implosion of Republicans, Free Democrats and Girchi as a common phenomenon, and to arrive at pessimistic conclusions. The reality is that these parties struggled for different reasons. Most people seem to agree that the Republicans stayed with the Georgian Dream too long to establish their independent role. The Free Democrats listened to too many advisers, overstretched their program, and did not come across as authentic. Girchi unravelled in its merger with Paata Burchuladze — not surprising, given that mergers are hard everywhere. The failure arguably does not have much to do with the general orientation of the party.

The key task for analysts will be to illuminate those reasons in more detail, over the coming months. What is at stake is to understand how political alternatives can be made attractive to voters. Nuanced analysis requires a thoughtful approach and a constructive discussion beyond the sweeping comments we often see on Facebook.

One general lesson is just how hard it is to run a party in adverse circumstances. The challenge is underestimated both by party leaders — and by people who are sometimes a bit too quick to judge parties and party leaders from the outside.

Ted Jonas, Lawyer

The disintegration of the alliance between Girchi, on the one hand, and Burchuladze’s and Vashadze’s party on the other hand seems to have been largely a case of incompatible people coming together for a short term interest. That should be a warning of how difficult it is for parties to unite into coalitions or blocs, no matter how much it makes sense for them to do so. As for the Free Democrats and the Republicans, I think the reasons for their implosions are different in each case, I can’t pretend to know the whole story in either case: so let’s just take it as a given.

The question is what happens going forward? I think [ex-Speaker David] Usupashvili’s idea of talking to individuals and not parties about forming a future “third force” in Georgian politics is the right one. If some of the principled individuals from all of these groupings – Goguadze, Alasania, Petriashvili, Usuapashvili, Khidasheli, Khmaladze, Japaridze and others; maybe one day Giorgi Margvelashvili after his presidency is over – joined together and formed a Western-oriented liberal centrist party, it could help ensure that those politicians and the people who vote for them clear the 5% threshold and have representation in Parliament.

Over the next few months and years, the UNM will hopefully establish itself as a credible opposition parliamentary party, and lose the baggage of Akhalaia and Adeishvili and Saakashvili that has burdened them these past several years. If that were to happen maybe they could join forces or cooperate with a party formed out of the remains of the small liberal parties. Even if this does not happen, we will have made great progress to have a liberal democratic opposition party that unites principled, intelligent and patriotic people into a Western-oriented grouping.

A three-party system would be a great step forward for Georgia. I don’t think Georgians are going to passively accept the super-majority rule of the Georgian Dream and the abuses that are likely follow from their having too much power in the coming years, so I am optimistic that opposition politics in Georgia will develop and mature into stronger and more effective forces, and voices for the people, by 2020 than they were in 2016.

Lincoln Mitchell, Analyst

We should be careful not to overstate the impact of the Free Democrats and Republicans not making it into parliament. This is particularly true in the west were David Usupashvili and Irakli Alasania were among the most well-known, and well liked, Georgian politicians.

It is true that had these two parties made it into parliament, they would have brought some very talented people into the legislature. However, Usupashvili, the very competent and impressive Speaker of the previous Parliament, would not have retained that position as a member of small minority party, even if the Republicans had snuck past the 5% threshold.

Even without the Free Democrats and Republicans, the new Parliament will have a distinctly pro-west feel, not least because the two parties that will have the most seats in the new parliament, the Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, both have strong pro-western records, and are recognized as such by most western decision makers and analysts. The same cannot be said for the Alliance of Patriots, but they are unlikely to be major players in the new national legislature.

Another reality that cannot be ignored is that a primary reason why the Free Democrats and the Republicans are stuck on the outside of parliament looking in is because they refused to form a coalition, one between two parties with similar views and temperaments, that would have gotten at least a few leaders from both parties into parliament.

Georgia`s democratic path will continue without these parties and their frequently impressive leaders, but it would also be premature that we have the last from these important political figures.


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