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Although Mikheil Saakashvili retained the UNM’s brand after its split, has he also damaged the party’s chances at acting as a stable opposition force?by JAM News 20 February 2017
On 12 January, several members of the United National Movement, including 21 lawmakers, decided to quit the party, citing disagreements over its platform and future. The breakaway group announced that it will start a new political faction, and turn a new leaf in the fight against the ruling Georgian Dream. Several people singled out Mikheil Saakashvili, party leader and former president, as the culprit for the split, with former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava saying that Saakashvili, who had moved to Ukraine in 2015 and has served as governor of the Odessa region, "does not radiate leadership anymore."
The breakup of the United National Movement (UNM) was not a peaceful affair, but rather like a divorce, where spouses – to impress the neighbors – call each other names and throw pans and pots at each other. But now it’s time to forget the uproar and to assess how the split impacted the Georgian political scene.
First, let’s look at how the current political situation in the country compares to that in established democracies. A party system is one of the key characteristics of a functioning democracy, which relies on strong and stable parties (although that aspect of the political system has become problematic of late, which might be a sign of a general democracy crisis). However, Georgia has never had, and still does not have, strong and stable political parties. The breakup of the United National Movement may serve as proof of the overall crisis of Georgian political parties after the 2016 elections.
Just after the first results in the October parliamentary elections were announced, two parties, the Free Democrats and the Government for the People, announced their breakup. They were confident that they could overcome the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament, but failed miserably to do so. The Republican Party of Georgia, which never stood any chance, despite the hopes of many, has also split. Like them, a lot of political parties have proven too vulnerable to survive intact the shock of election defeat.
The UNM was different. The party had already survived three election cycles, and many hoped that they could become a stable political force. First they were part of the opposition, and then governed as the ruling party; later, they survived defeat and the new government’s attempts to politically obliterate its predecessors, returning to the opposition. No other party in Georgia could boast such achievements. Their defeat in the last parliamentary elections was obviously a disappointment for the UNM. However, objectively speaking, their results were not bad. They remained an opposition force with a good outlook for the future, although they had yet to pass another important and painful test – choosing a new leader.
All influential Georgian political parties were the brainchildren of and highly dependent on their strong leaders. Voters have always regarded former President Mikheil Saakashvili as the UNM leader. That was important because Saakashvili had a lot of supporters. But it was also a weakness, because Saakashvili also annoyed many people, and the party was too dependent on him. That kept UNM from transforming itself into a real political force: Should anything happen to the leader, the party would become vulnerable and fail, as was the case with the party of former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze or the former leader of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic in western Georgia/former regional leader Aslan Abashidze after their departures. Alternatively, such a party would break into opposing factions – as was the case with the “Zviadists” in the party of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first democratically elected president, after he was no longer around.
In recent years, the question of leadership has been the UNM’s weakest point. After Saakashvili moved to Ukraine to engage in local politics and renounced his Georgian citizenship, he lost his legal right to lead a political party in Georgia. He could hardly be an effective leader from afar either. Could anyone replace him? The leadership in Tbilisi, the group that eventually split away, wanted to transform the party from an organization based on the willpower of a single person, regardless of his popularity and worthiness, into a truly European organization with a real political platform and transparent procedures. They did not plan to oust Saakashvili from the party’s ranks and saw him as a figurehead who would lead the party without wielding power.
Ironically, the success of this scenario depended on the goodwill and consent of one person, Saakashvili himself. And that shows a fundamental weakness of the opposition wing that eventually broke away. Their assumptions were naive given the current political climate. Why would Saakashvili voluntarily give up control of the party he had founded? Strategically, it might have been a wise step for him to withdraw. He could remain in the shadows and give the ruling Georgian Dream party total freedom to act as it would like. Once people became tired of problems in society and disappointed with government policies, they would look back with nostalgia to the “Golden Era” of Saakashvili, and his party could capitalize on that. But Saakashvili did not think so. Personal ambitions and different long-term visions led to the split.
Saakashvili does not believe that the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, will ever give up power through elections. Therefore he wants to turn the UNM into an opposition force that could instigate mass protests and bring about the inevitable fall of the Georgian Dream government.
Such a revolutionary turn of events could spell Saakashvili’s return to power. This explains why he had urged the party not to recognize the 2016 elections, and boycotted the work of the parliament. The opposing fraction in his party did not rule out this scenario. However, they did not think that the Georgian people craved another revolution. Moreover, they believed that radical rhetoric played into the hands of the Ivanishvili government, which wanted voters to equate the UNM with the danger of instability. The government’s electoral message was: “We do not have great results but if you want to avoid turmoil and conflict, vote for us.” The breakaway group accused Saakashvili of reinforcing the government’s message. And this was the final straw. The conflict between the “office elite” on the one hand and “field activists” or “regular supporters” on the other was a political technique that Saakashvili astutely used. Tactically, Saakashvili’s victory was complete.
He now maintains the UNM brand along with the most loyal and active followers. But what is the strategic outcome of this victory? If the leader’s vision does not change, the UNM should then wait for the fall of the Georgian Dream government and count on riding on a tide of radical protests.
Georgia’s Dream can hardly be called a successful government. But during their four years in office their numerous mistakes have not led to a major disaster. Will there be a crisis anytime soon? And it is wise for a party to wait for a national disaster? How long can a political leader cheer his enthusiastic and impatient supporters from abroad while failing to make a dent in Ivanishvili’s rule?
At the same time, the breakaway group faces tough challenges. They have to build a distinct political identity and a solid supporter base from scratch, which might be a difficult task without an authentic and charismatic leader. However, political experience, parliamentary seats, and being the only non-Saakashvili opposition force are good places to start.
Fortune telling is an ungrateful task. However, there are at least two things we know for sure. First, the UNM divorce has left only one winner – Georgian Dream/the Ivanishvili government. Second, there are no real political parties in Georgia. And there is no sign of them emerging anytime soon.
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