Election Aftermath: When Georgian Dream Becomes Georgian Reality

By Robert Coalson and Nino Gelashvili

Bidzina Ivanishvili's party now faces a much tougher challenge than discrediting the country's long-serving president, Mikheil Saakashvili: It has to govern.

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Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition at an election rally in Tbilisi. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

TBILISI -- The confetti has been swept up following Georgia's surprising October 1 legislative elections. And now comes the hard part.

The victorious Georgian Dream coalition faces the perilous task of forming a government and articulating a program that is more nuanced than mere opposition to President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The vote count is still under way and election officials are yet to issue preliminary results indicating exactly how many seats in parliament each party will get under the country's complicated allocation system.

Nonetheless, initial estimates project that Georgian Dream will have around 82 deputies, while Saakashvili's now-opposition United National Movement (UNM) will have about 68.

Georgian Dream faces two immediate challenges.

First, the coalition of nine disparate parties must demonstrate sufficient unity to nominate a parliament speaker and a government. The movement has already said that billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili will be named prime minister, but the rest of the cabinet is up for grabs.

Second, Georgian Dream must find a way to coexist with Saakashvili's UNM, which still has considerable public support. More support, in fact, than any single party within Georgian Dream.

Georgian Dream has formed a working group -- comprising former Georgian UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania, Republican Party leader Davit Usupashvili, and Georgian Dream Party official Irakli Gharibashvili -- to begin the process of pulling the coalition together.

According to Georgian Dream spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze, the process is already under way.

"Certainly, our foremost task is to name a speaker of parliament," she says. "Of course, we in our coalition already have a certain vision in this regard. And then we will name the prime minister and his cabinet. You know the name of the future prime minister, but as to who will be in his cabinet, we will announce that later. It is still a matter of consultations."

United By Antipathy

Georgian Dream has not set a deadline for these talks, and the outgoing Georgian government of lame-duck Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili continues to work until a new one is approved.

However, coalition members range from nationalists, to liberals, to market-oriented industrialists. Until now, they have been united exclusively by their antipathy toward Saakashvili and their desire to derive political advantage from Ivanishvili's vast wealth.

In particular, the fourth most-powerful party in the bloc is the right-wing nationalist People's Front, which will have a hard time finding a common language with Alasania's liberal Free Democrats or left-leaning partners such as the Green Party and the Women's Party.

Ghia Nodia, professor of politics at Ilia State University, notes that the opposition coalesced around the largely unknown political neophyte Ivanishvili.

"The mobilization of public discontent was only possible because of the financial resources of one man, whose political abilities and motives raise profound doubts," he says.

In the waning days of the hard-fought campaign, the UNM released an audio recording of a top Ivanishvili deputy disparaging a Georgian Dream candidate using the most brutal language.

Ivanishvili was compelled to issue a statement saying that the two are actually "close friends" and that, in general, members of Georgian Dream are "like friends."

Moreover, Ivanishvil still needs to resolve ongoing issues related to his citizenship.

Days after he launched Georgian Dream, in a move widely seen as politically motivated, a court stripped him of his Georgian citizenship on the grounds that he also held French and Russian passports.

Ivanishvili has since renounced his Russian citizenship and has said he will also give up his French passport as soon as his Georgian citizenship is restored. After the election, Ivanishvili said he expected this to happen.

Unique Political Landscape

In addition, Georgian Dream must contend with a still-powerful UNM and with Saakashvili. The postelection political landscape is unique in Georgian history in that for the first time there is no dominant ruling party capable of passing legislation and even amending the constitution without regard for the opposition.

Constitutional amendments passed by the UNM in 2010 that will transfer much of the presidency's power to the parliament and government won't come into force until January 2013. Georgia will hold a presidential election in October 2013, and Saakashvili is barred from running for a third consecutive term.

Before those amendments take effect, Saakashvili technically has the right to nominate a prime minister and several key power ministers. But in a conciliatory gesture, he has said he will not use those powers and will accept any nominations endorsed by parliament.

Bakur Kvashilava, dean of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), suggests this is a savvy political move.

"This is the right decision politically because when the people have told you that they want a different government, you shouldn't be pouring oil on the fire by preventing the winner from building a government simply because the constitution that you tailored allows you to do so," he says. "It was the right decision morally and politically."

Georgian Dream has also tried to reduce tensions with the UNM following the election.

Although Ivanishvili said on October 2 it would be best if Saakashvili resigned and called an early presidential election, he clarified his position the next day by stating explicitly that the movement is prepared to work with the president in any case.

Avoiding Gridlock

Georgian Dream spokeswoman Panjikidze has emphasized that the movement has no desire to create political gridlock.

"The most important thing at this stage is not to hamper Georgia's constitutional order and the work of the government bodies," she says. "So, this way or another, we will have to talk to the president, who will now represent the opposition forces. In order for everything to happen seamlessly and in order for the transfer of power to take place, we have formed a working group that will work along with the relevant group sent by the current government and go through all constitutional steps."

Levan Tsutskiridze, president of the Association for Foreign Affairs, maintains that Georgia's increasingly mature and professional civil service should be a stabilizing factor as the transition unfolds.

"Also very important is that even though we know that a lot of political appointees will be losing their jobs, which is normal, in Georgia we have already quite a large number of professional bureaucrats in the civil service who will maintain their positions, and this is important both politically and pragmatically for the good of the state," he says.

Looking forward, Georgian Dream and the new government face considerable policy challenges.

Perhaps most importantly, it must decide on the approach it takes toward neighboring Russia, with whom the country remains in a state of war since the five-day conflict in August 2008.

Ivanishvili has said he remains committed to Georgian European integration and eventual NATO membership but believes he can achieve these ends without antagonizing Moscow.

The key issue separating Moscow and Tbilisi -- Moscow's recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Georgia considers to be occupied by Russia -- is an emotionally volatile one in Georgia that seems to offer little room for compromise.

Written in Prague by Robert Coalson, based on reporting in Tbilisi by Nino Gelashvili of RFE/RL's Georgian Service.


Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/election-aftermath-when-georgian-dream-becomes-georgian-reality/263286/