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Due to the results of the 1 October 2012 parliamentary elections, Georgia has entered a new era. The opposition party Georgian Dream, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, won the elections with a clear majority with 83 of the 150 seats. It overcame the incumbent United National Movement (UNM) of Mikheil Saakashvili, who immediately conceded defeat.
Although the electoral campaign was dominated by tough competition, and the running of the elections was marred by some irregularities, analysts consider these elections as a landmark. Following the EU observer mission, Parliament President Martin Schulz congratulated Georgia on the conduct of the elections. OSCE observers considered them a step to consolidating democracy. The Council adopted conclusions congratulating the Georgian people and confirming the EU’s commitment to engage with Georgia.
The electoral campaign was mainly personality driven, with both parties’ programmes quite similar, concentrating on healthcare, employment and agriculture. Georgian Dream won thanks to growing concerns over the government’s authoritarian tendencies and corruption, Ivanishvili’s fortune (he is said to be worth US$6.4 billion, half of Georgia’s annual budget), promises to turn around the Georgian economy, and support from the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, the scandal over torture and sexual abuse of inmates in Georgia’s prisons probably swayed undecided voters.
Saakashvili will remain president for a year, since he already announced that he would not resign before the end of his mandate. Both parties must learn to coexist. And there will be tensions not only between the two big players but also within their ranks. The Georgian Dream coalition is broad-based, including extreme nationalists and liberals united mainly by their dislike of Saakashvili. Enforced cohabitation could weaken the alliance.
Ivanishvili is likely to be appointed prime minister, even if some concerns persist on his lack of Georgian citizenship. In this case, his powers will ironically be boosted in 2013 thanks to the constitutional changes, initiated by Saakashvili himself, transferring certain presidential powers to the prime minister.
While the Georgian constitution does not explicitly state that parliamentary elections must be followed by a change of government, constitutional amendments passed in 2010 call for the nomination of a new cabinet.
Within a week, Ivanishvili had proposed most of his new cabinet. The nominations reveal something of his approach since most important positions go to people with professional and educational experience in Western Europe or the USA. It is likely that he will develop further close ties with the US and EU, and pursue eventual NATO membership. But another priority will be to restore trade with Russia. His attitude is pragmatic, taking into account that hundreds of thousands of Georgians work in Russia and that Russia used to be Georgia’s biggest market. According to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russia is ready for dialogue. However, reconciliation will require strong diplomacy considering that Georgia remains in a state of war with Russia since the five-day conflict in August 2008. Furthermore, people in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not vote, maintaining their position of independence, which Ivanishvili has noted.
The hope is that Georgia is acquiring a genuine two-party system, rather than merely replacing one one-party system with another. Strengthening political institutions, to guarantee democracy, will be a real challenge. But another big task for Georgian Dream will be to repair the splits within Georgian society. Employment and poverty remain very high among the elderly, less educated and rural Georgians.