Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian Voters Wary of All Parties

Opposition will have to work harder to convince voters it offers positive alternative to current administration.
By Sopho Bukia
  • Georgian opposition protesters in Tbilisi in May. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)
    Georgian opposition protesters in Tbilisi in May. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)

While opinion polls show about half the Georgian electorate is undecided about which party to support, the main opposition bloc needs to do more if it is to capture some of this vote, analysts stay.

A parliamentary election next year will be crucial to determining the country’s future course, but opposition parties have yet to make serious inroads on the powerful United National Movement of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

In the most recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, just 33 per cent of respondents expressed support for the governing United National Movement. The opposition Christian Democrats was supported by ten per cent, and the remaining opposition parties by the same percentage, leaving half the electorate undecided about which way to vote.

Iago Kachkachishvili, a professor from Tbilisi State University, believes most of these remaining voters dislike the Saakashvili administration. At the same time, they do not actively support either of the two opposition groupings – eight parties which are negotiating with the government, or the so-called “radical opposition” which has been trying since 2007 to use mass street protests to bump Saakashvili out of power, most recently on May 26.

“These people are not aligned with anyone. They did not take to the streets on May 26,” Kachkachishvili said. “This unclaimed electorate is very large. When the radical opposition lost these voters, the other section of the opposition had an opportunity to win them over. This is a hunting ground for the opposition – the eight parties need to fight for these votes.”

The May protest failed when police moved in to disperse demonstrators, and the lack of follow-up protests suggested that the movement was running out of steam. (See Georgian Protest Crushed.)

Meanwhile, eight moderate parties, including the Christian Democrats, have been holding talks with the authorities, focusing on changes to the electoral system. They want proportional representation to be the principal system used for elections to parliament, rather than for half the seats as is now the case. (For more on this issue, see Electoral Reform Grinds to Halt in Georgia.)

For their part, the authorities appear reluctant to make concessions, and the negotiations have made little headway. Failure or procrastination could undermine the opposition parties’ approach, allowing their radical colleagues to regain ground at their expense.

Despite this risk, Kachkachishvili believes the eight should continue pressing for a better voting system rather than allow themselves to be distracted by other aims.

“I think the most realistic goal the opposition can achieve is electoral change, which would help them become better represented in parliament and thus also in government,” he said. “Unfortunately, the eight parties haven’t considered this, and their ultimate aim continues to be a complete change of government, something that might not be to their advantage.”

The parties are trying to stir up broader support among the electorate by getting people involved in their voting reform campaign.

“By getting every citizen to participate, we must show that what’s needed for electoral amendments is not eight opposition parties, but a majority of the Georgian people,” David Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party, told civil society groups on June 7.

As part of the campaign, the opposition groups want to stage street demonstrations that focus on demands for a better voting system.

“Together with society, we will show everyone that there is a point to taking to the street for two or three hours with a specific objective,” a statement from the eight parties said.

“Politics must be pursued not just by politicians, but also by the people,” Irakli Alasania, leader of the Free Democrats, said. “It will be a very difficult process with many setbacks, but I am sure that at the end of the day, the United National Movement will be defeated by a united society.”

Gia Nodia, an academic and a former education minister, warned that opposition parties would need to talk about more than electoral reform if they wanted to excite public interest.

“The electoral system is of interest to the political class. It’s in its interest to see how many members it can get into parliament,” he said. “But for ordinary citizens, it isn’t the most interesting thing. To them, it’s more interesting to find out how a party is going to improve their lives.”

Nodia said opposition policies needed to become a lot clearer.

“They need to get out of their own narrow circle, in which the electoral system is Georgia’s only problem,” he said. “It’s certainly a problem, but it isn’t the only one for society, and it isn’t the main one.”

Sopho Bukia is the editor of Liberali magazine.