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Georgian Parliamentary Election 2016. Parties under pressure

On October 8th 2016, Georgia will hold its eighth parliamentary election since declaring independence in 1991. This parliamentary election is critical to maintaining a “routinisation” of democratic practices in a country that just a few decades ago was under authoritarian rule. Unlike many of the other countries in the region, Georgia has managed to achieve democratic stability in recent years, despite the continued occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia. The October 2016 election is of  specific importance for Georgian politics not because there is a potential for revolution and regime collapse or regime change, as was the case in 2003 with the Rose Revolution, but precisely because of the opposite. The upcoming election will be the most competitive in Georgia to date, will likely see three or more political parties pass the five percent threshold and will possibly require a coalition government be formed. These facts are important because while elections have become routine in Georgia, many questions still surround the key democratic actors – political parties – and their ability either to lend legitimacy or to delegitimise the electoral process. The behaviour of political parties in the parliamentary election next month will be closely scrutinised. Whether parties will revert to old tactics of intimidation, violence, personal attacks, and an overall disregard for the rule of law in their fight for power is of a particular concern. Furthermore, the participation of female candidates will again be important for assessing levels of representation in Georgian politics.

September 26, 2016 - Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak - Articles and Commentary

Parliament of Georgia in Kutaisi

Problematic party politics

An average Georgian voter does not have much experience with political parties. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) created a bad image of parties as institutions, leaving modern parties in Georgia grappling with the consequences of the Soviet past. Despite this legacy, United National Movement achieved  tremendous success following the 2003 Rose Revolution and dominated politics in Georgia up until the 2012 parliamentary election. This has led to the development of a number of minority parties that are vying to get their name out there and win seats in the government. Georgia has a weak party cadre, where too often there is a dominant party and politics in general is more of a one-man show. As the late Alexander Rondeli, the former President of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies put it, “a normal [Georgian] man does not want to belong to any party. He is a Napoleon, thinking ‘why do I need a party?’ He really only wants to belong to the winning party.”

Political parties in Georgia are faced with the usual difficulties of party development after decades of communism. Furthermore, these challenges are compounded by a nascent party culture. Historically, the outgoing party disappears and a new party of power replaces it taking full control of the government. Party politics in Georgia needs a balance of forces as in every democracy. Since the 2012 parliamentary election, the Georgian party system has undergone immense development, as the outgoing UNM defied tradition and did not dissolve or completely lose voter support. Still, individual parties have largely failed to establish a sense of professionalism, continuity and diversity.

Some of the primary challenges facing the upcoming election, as positedby the National Democratic Institute in its pre-election analysis, concern the behaviour and operation of political parties. Particularly concerning is the possibility of violence or intimidation of opposition candidates and journalists, as well as the representation of women in parliament. Political parties are critical agents in newer democracies as they are the mediators between state and society. In developing democracies, polarisation between political parties can only be sustained to a degree. In modern democratic political systems, parties are not expected to like each other however they must possess the ability to govern together. Thus parties need to develop peaceful working relationships and not be consumed with personal vendettas.

The composition of parties is also vital for a party’s representative capability. A gender balance is necessary and will increase the awareness of, as well as prioritise, women’s issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, equal pay, and access to higher education. The problem of underrepresentation of women in parliaments in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus persists. This is the result of both structural and systemic shortcomings concerning women’s access to politics. It is necessary for parties to field more female candidates for legislative office as well as for parties and the government to take increased measures to prevent the discouragement of women’s participation.

Competition is healthy, conflict is not

Political parties in Georgia still exhibit a sense of immaturity in how they approach competition. Violence and intimidation have a large presence during elections. For example, in local council elections in Kortskheli on May 22nd 2016, opposition leaders and activists were physically attacked near a polling station by government supporters. These events were captured on  video tape, yet some ruling government officials still deflected responsibility and further escalated inter-party tensions. Journalists and leaders of non-partisan election monitoring groups have also been subject to threats and attacks as well as faced pressure and accusations of bias by government authorities.

The atmosphere during elections in Georgia is filled with fear, which must change if democracy is to develop. Political parties need to denounce the use of violence and other scare tactics not only because they diminish the validity of the elections, but because such behaviour reflects poorly on the parties themselves, creating distrust among voters. Parties need to work together to prevent violence and improve the campaign environment. They need to allow law enforcement bodies to investigate any instances of intimidation or physical attacks that do occur, without obstruction or interference.

The attitudes of Georgian parties also need to change; they must move past assigning blame and lobbying for personal attacks and focus on cooperative and efficient governance. The development and enforcement of a political party code of conduct as concerns the behaviour of party members would be an excellent step in this direction. It would, however, require the participation and agreement of all parties in order to be effective. Such an effort to codify formally what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviour would not only send a message of increased professionalism to party members and supporters, but it would have an overall positive impact on the electorate. Additionally, if the focus shifts from personal attacks between politicians and parties it will ideally open-up more time and space for substantive policy debate and discussion.

Where are the women?

Georgia has a lack of female representation in parliament. Only 12 per cent (18 out of 150) of the seats are held by women, which is still the highest percentage of seats held by women since the country’s independence. Only one of Georgia’s 15 parliamentary committees is chaired by a woman and the percentage of women in the cabinet of ministers is onlyten. Interestingly, this gender gap occurs despite wide public support for women in politics – NDI polls consistently find that around 70 per cent of the population believe women should hold at least a third of the seats in parliament. The problem lies predominantly in political parties who are doing too little to increase female legislative representation.

Georgian law supports the principle of gender equality in politics, and financial incentives were introduced by the parliament in 2011 to parties that submitted lists with at least 20 per cent female members. However, in the 2012 parliamentary election only two parties met this threshold and neither won sets in the parliament (Christian Democratic Union and the Labour Party of Georgia). The law has since been modified to provide 30 per cent more funding to parties where three out of every ten candidates are women. However, neither the governing Georgian Dream (GD) nor the United National Movement (UNM) have yet taken advantage of these incentives. In 2012, female candidates made up only 16.5 per cent and 11 per cent of the total candidates on GD and UNM party lists, respectively. Since parties have been slow to promote women and increase the number of female candidates on their lists, mandatory quotas need to be introduced into legislation to increase women’s participation in politics. Until then, however, parties need to commit to the introduction of voluntary internal gender quotas.

Through deliberate recruiting and training efforts targeting women, the development of party initiatives to increase awareness of women’s issues and the integration of such issues into party platforms, parties will be able not only to field more female candidates, but also to attract more female voters. However, it is equally important for parties to foster and promote a more gender inclusive political environment. Parties need to openly oppose and jointly condemn the intimidation of female candidates – such as through the illegal video recording of women politicians in discrediting situations. The stigma still attached to women’s sexuality in Georgia and the ability to use it to victimise female public figures points specifically to the reason why a critical mass of women is needed in the national legislature to protect the interests of women.

Few Georgians join political parties for ideological reasons, rather they join because of sympathy towards a specific leader. Traditionally there has been a lack of inflow of the educated, younger generation and opportunism is still too high within parties compared to Western democracies. The intellectual level of politicians needs to change so that the capability to debate within and between parties increases and extremism declines. Additionally, the elevation of women within party ranks needs to occur and the intimidation of women needs to be formally addressed and condemned if parties are to correct the gender imbalance in politics. In Georgia, parties still view being in the opposition as a game of combativeness, where cooperation is tactical and not based on a common vision. This approach needs to change starting with the upcoming October elections so that parties are assisting in and not discouraging further democratic development and increased representation.

Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. She obtained her PhD in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago, with a focus on comparative politics. Her areas of expertise include democratisation and party politics in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. 

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