In 2012, following eight years of Saakashvili’s rule, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili assembled a wide coalition of opponents of “Misha” to compete in the October Parliamentary elections. Due to Constitutional changes initiated by Saakashvili, most powers of the presidency shifted to the Prime Minister following the 2012 election. This move was of course designed to allow Saakashvili to skirt the two term limit for President’s and maintain his rule. However the move backfired as a prison abuse scandal combined with Saakashvili fatigue, resulted in Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) coalition winning a resounding 55-40% victory of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). The following year, the Georgian Dream candidate for President won an easy 63-22% victory over Saakashvili’s party’s candidate. However, a weak economy and general disappointment with a perceived lack of fulfilled promises by the Georgian Dream coalition, have led to a sharp decline in the ruling party’s popularity since that election. In an IRI poll earlier this year, 70% of Georgians said the country is headed in the wrong direction with just 16% saying the opposite. In addition, Saakashvili’s career was been somewhat rehabilitated by his appointment as Governor of Odesa in June 2015, and he openly speaks of returning to Georgia if his party is victorious this weekend. Simultaneously Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks of leaving Georgia if Saakashvili’s UNM party returns to power. In short, Georgia isn’t big enough for the both of them.
Based on the average of four recent public opinion surveys, there are three likely outcomes from tomorrow’s election:
1) Georgian Dream will win the most seats in Parliament and de facto “win” the election.
Polling in Georgia is an inexact science and sometimes bears no resemblance to reality. Therefore it is critical to average a series of polls over time to get a less biased perspective on the “real numbers”. Below is an average of four recent polls:
A total of 73 seats are awarded to parties receiving five percent of the proportional vote. Based on the current polling averages, that would result in 40 seats by proportional ballot going to Georgian Dream, and 25 seats to UNM. The populist Alliance of Patriots of Georgia would receive eight seats. While polls vary, and the latest September Gfk poll shows likely voters favoring UNM slightly over Georgian Dream, the polling average clearly shows Georgian Dream with a solid lead of 32-20%. UNM’s 20% average result is statistically identical to their October 2013 performance in the Presidential Election (23%). Thus, in effect, UNM has not increased its support over the last three years and is “flat lined”. In 2012, UNM controlled all the administrative resources and most of the media in Georgia. Despite these advantages, they won just 40% of the vote and 65 seats in Parliament (out of 150). In fact, many observers believe the 40% result was somewhat enhanced by the use of administrative resources by UNM in the 2012 election. With their current poll average at half of that 40% 2012 figure, UNM continues to have trouble convincing voters that they have changed. Thus, it is unlikely that after four years of UNM failing to increase their support level from the low 20’s, that the 20-25% of current undecided voters will break heavily in their favor. However if undecided voters were to break in favor of UNM (undecideds typically break 2:1 for challengers), it would put UNM only in the low 30’s of support – approximately equal to Georgian Dream’s current rating.
As an opposition party, Georgian Dream scored an impressive 55% result in 2012. Currently their average poll rating is around 60% of that mark. However Georgian Dream has two key advantages over UNM. First, Georgian Dream has an impressive “Get Out the Vote” effort which could add an additional 3-5% to their current average. Second, and more importantly, Georgian Dream will strongly outperform UNM in the single mandate constituencies. Under Georgia’s election law, 73 seats are chosen by proportional ballot and 77 seats by constituencies. In the last election, Georgian Dream won 44 constituencies and UNM won 33. However defections of UNM MP’s have whittled their numbers down to just 16 constituencies. Meanwhile Georgian Dream MP’s and MP’s in the Parliamentary majority have increased to 46 constituencies. Incumbents in districts have a typically higher re-election rate than those on party lists. With no polling available from individual constituencies, we will assume that there will be no net change between parties in the current composition of constituencies. In addition, as Dr. Lincoln Mitchell, a leading authority on Georgian politics notes, Georgians are not split ticket voters. Unlike Ukrainians who will strategically vote for one party on the proportional ballot and a different one for the single mandate district, Georgians are typically single ticket voters. Thus, if Georgian Dream and UNM re-elect just their current MP’s from constituencies with no net changes in the total, that would give 46 and 16 respectively with six seats going to the Republicans, four to the Free Democrats, two to National Forum, and two to independents (non-faction), with one vacancy. If the proportional ballot results are added, Georgian Dream would increase to 86 MP’s to give it a clear and stable majority. UNM would have 41 seats, and 23 seats would be scattered amongst four parties and independents. While the numbers for Georgian Dream are not as optimistic as their leader Bidzina Ivanishvili’s prediction earlier this week (he predicted that Georgian Dream would win “at least 48% of the vote and 60 majoritarian MP seats” in the election), it still keeps his party in power.
2) UNM will maintain its presence in Parliament as the leading opposition party, but with a smaller faction than they currently enjoy.
Given the average of the polls and the likely outcome of the single mandate constituencies, there is no real path to electoral victory for UNM tomorrow. Hence the growing talk by UNM leaders about staging Maidan-like protests after the election claiming the results are rigged. UNM and Saakashvili came to power in November 2003 through protests over election fraud in the Parliamentary elections that year known as the Rose Revolution. The history of successful ‘Maidans’ may have repeated itself in Ukraine, but it is not likely in Georgia (at least this year).
The hope of victory for UNM lies in four steps. First, they must get close to Georgian Dream on the proportional ballot which means that the majority of undecided voters must break heavily for UNM tomorrow. Second, they must immediately begin protests over election fraud which motivates the average Georgian to join the protest, and catch the attention of the international community in the process. Third, between now and the runoffs they must shift the political and international momentum in their favor to pick up seats currently held by Georgian Dream MP’s. Under Georgian election law, if no candidate receives 50% plus one vote on Election Day, a runoff election is held two weeks later between the top two vote getters. Thus, many district elections will not be decided until later this month. During this two week period, UNM would have to persuade international opinion in their favor that the election had been falsified. Given that the international community has largely been positive about the conduct of these elections (in contrast to the abuses in the pre-election campaign four years ago) – this is unlikely. Fourth, they must then persuade one of the smaller parties such as the Free Democrats or Republicans to join their governing coalition to create a majority. This is unlikely as the smaller parties likely to pass the barrier are either staunch enemies of UNM (Alliance of Patriots and Labor Party), or former coalition partners who they don’t trust (Free Democrats and Republicans). Thus, if UNM fails to accomplish all four of these steps, then they are looking at four more years of being in the Parliamentary minority. Realistically, their chances of success are quite limited.
3) Smaller parties will break the five percent barrier to win seats in Parliament.
Currently the polling average shows just three parties passing the five percent barrier. However, it is likely that a significant number of undecided voters will break towards the smaller parties in this election. This gives at four smaller parties a realistic chance of winning seats on the proportional ballot. These parties include the Free Democrats, Republicans, State for People, and the Labor Party. Former Acting President Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement Party, which is the most pro-Russian party in Georgia, is lagging around two percent in the polls and despite her 10% result in the 2013 Presidential election, is unlikely to win seats in Parliament in this election. Thus, if the four smaller parties each received five percent of the vote, the composition of the next Parliament would look as follows:
Note that this table includes the single mandate districts currently held by MP’s from the Republicans, Free Democrats and other parties. For comparison purposes, eccentric Ukrainian billionaire Leonid Chernovetskiy and his Happy Georgia Party are also included in the list of potential MP’s. Having several parties receive more than five percent of the vote would alter the overall composition of the next Parliament, but Georgian Dream would maintain control. In this scenario, Georgian Dream would have 76 seats, which is the bare minimum for an outright majority. UNM would be the second largest party with 34 seats, followed by the Republicans led by Speaker David Usupashvili with 11 seats, Free Democrats led by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasaniya with nine, and the Alliance of Patriots, State for People and Labor parties with six seats each. In this scenario, Georgian Dream would need a reliable coalition partner(s) and the Republicans led by current Speaker David Usupashvili would be the likely choice. The Free Democrats may choose to rejoin the coalition with Georgian Dream as well. Alternatively, Georgian Dream could partner with the Alliance of Patriots, but only if the Republicans were not part of the coalition, as there are strong dislike between the Patriots and Republicans. If UNM were able to persuade their former allies (Republicans and Free Democrats) to join their coalition, they would still be short of a majority by 12 seats. Other parties like the Alliance of Patriots and Labor party are opponents of UNM and thus, not an option. State for People leader and opera singer Paata Burchuladze, is also not an option given his nostalgia for the Soviet Union and ties to organized crime. In short, more parties in Parliament complicates the next ruling coalition, but hurts UNM’s chance of returning to power.
The results of the election may also have repercussions in Ukraine regarding Saakashvili. Ivanishvili claims that he has information that the Odesa Governor will be dismissed soon, and Ukrainian media is also circulating the story. The Governor has been particularly quiet in recent months and the tension between him and Poroshenko is clear. Repudiation by the Georgian voters may give Poroshenko a reason to remove Saakashvili from office. What is certain is that neither Ukrainians nor Georgians have not heard the last from Saakashvili, or from the ongoing saga of Black Sea electoral politics.