Author: Prof. Kornely Kakachia, Professor of Political Science, Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University, Georgia; Director of Tbilisi based think tank Georgian Institute of Politics.
Georgia’s recent political crisis exposed many of the problems that have been hindering the country’s democratization agenda over the last few decades. While many of the problems exposed during the crisis have been an integral part of Georgian politics, it also creates deep divides in society and encourages increasing partisan antagonism and political extremism. Intermittent political crises are coupled with frequent economic reverberations and generally unstable geopolitical situation along the country’s borders. As Party driven radicalization is a major obstacle for stability and consolidation of Georgian democracy, it also intensely undermines its security. If not checked it has potential to bring country towards civil confrontation.
Who is responsible for polarization in Georgia?
As radicalization of Georgian politics is primarily caused by internal power struggle, the government and opposition are equally responsible for rising populist sentiments and polarization in society. While level of public confidence in the fairness of the electoral process is low, political parties turn to radicalism as a means of attaining electoral success. As Georgian politics is still dominated by outsized political personalities, who are no longer officially serving in government, it seems that winning an election has become more important for political elites than maintaining a sustainable democracy. Moreover, in order to maintain or gain power, some parties turn to radicalism and negative campaign as a strategy of entry and of persuasion.
Both ruling party as well as opposition parties often fail to offer voters a positive agenda. Instead of presenting their own visions for the country’s development and discussing the dire social-economic situation — or any of the many other issues that voters are concerned about — pre-election campaigns are often based on scandals and attempts to demonize one’s opponents. This strategy creates a zero-sum game among political parties and hampers the establishment of a stable political party system. It also forces political parties into populist and radical modes of campaigning and enflames detrimental tendencies towards political opponents in Georgian party politics. In addition, it negatively influences the expectations of the electorate and radicalizes the entire political space, resulting in voter nihilism and political apathy. The increased polarization and uneven political conditions also deny other political actors the chance to compete fairly during the elections including upcoming 2021 local elections in Georgia.
Specifics of Polarization in Georgia
While there is increasing talks about political polarization in Georgia, which hinders Georgia’s democratic development, CRRC Georgia/ NDI data asserts that although “there is a division in society, there is little political polarization“. According to study Georgia lacks partisanship, a precondition for polarization and the divisions are not about either policy or ideology. According to April 2019, CRRC and NDI survey the vast majority of the public perceived politicians as a source of division and people clearly recognize that personalities divide them.
Moreover, as Georgia continues to face high simultaneous unemployment and underemployment, economy plays a minor role in the political process despite it continues to be on top of population’s concerns and should be the major focus of political actors. Recent IRI polls showed that for an overwhelming majority of Georgian voters, the economy and unemployment were the major factors driving their vote. Instead of addressing these challenges Georgian political parties have chosen to emphasize hatred and fear towards each other as political opponents, who, they warn, will destroy their supporters and the country.
Political polarization is also a challenge for the Georgian media landscape. As there is no trust, no willingness for dialogue between political actors, the Georgian media is also polarized along political lines and by business interests. This augments polarization within the Georgian society. In the absence of policy discussion and analytical reporting, pro-government and opposition-oriented television stations mostly have a biased coverage of the events, most of the time aggressively attacking the other side.
This is at odds with what Georgia’s international partners expect from the country’s political elite. Confrontational rhetoric by the political leaders especially by government alarmed many friends of Georgia. Even though the government adopted a more conciliatory tone recently (signing the document mediated by the EU which includes the possibility of snap elections or amnesty for the leader of opposition), time will show whether the change will be lasting and if Georgian authorities got the international messages right.
But none of this can have a lasting impact until political parties in Georgia have changed their outdated and dangerous mind-sets. Twenty years ago, Georgia managed to revoke a negative tide of history and brought country’s governance to a new level and quality. Today, Georgia needs another cultural revolution that is all political actors should change their political and cultural attitudes and more away from a zero-sum-game mentality towards a European style consensual politics. Cohabitation and coalitional politics – once badly tainted words in Georgia – should become new modus operandi in the country. This is the only way to finish Georgia’s unfinished democracy and prove to the international partners that Georgia could indeed be a beacon of stability and democracy. A proper democratic and economic development needs peace, stability and civic unity.
The current stalemate between government and opposition is heading the country towards international isolation and a never-ending cycle of instability. This also may undermine regional stability and its long-term security interest in the region. Therefore, it is of a paramount importance for Georgia, to avoid a perception of democratic backsliding and take quick steps to form of fast-track political reforms to eliminate political radicalization of political parties that undermines its fragile and unconsolidated institutions.