By viewing Georgia’s upcoming elections entirely through the lens of democratic advance or retreat, the West risks overlooking the real political developments in the post-Soviet states.

Georgia is preparing itself for parliamentary elections in 2012 and a presidential contest in 2013. The country’s Western allies see these elections as critical tests for Georgian democracy. This argument is comforting if for no other reason than its familiarity.2 But given the concentration of power in Georgian politics, and the limits on media, associational life and political activity in Georgia today, it is not likely that the next elections, without substantial changes to the political system, will move Georgian democracy forward. By looking at these elections entirely through the lens of democratic advance or retreat, the United States and Europe will be largely unprepared to see the other important impacts upon Georgian political development and the Georgian regime.

The government led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, which came to power in January 2004 following the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze, has now been in office for over eight years, and continues to dominate Georgian politics almost completely. The ruling United National Movement (UNM) party has over 75% of the seats in parliament and controls every local governing legislature. Likewise, every major appointed government official is either a party member or supporter. In the capital Tbilisi, the only Georgian city where the mayor is directly elected, UNM candidate Gigi Ugulava won with 53% of the vote in 2010. The candidate who finished second, Irakli Alasania, garnered only 19%.

While the UNM is a powerful player in Georgian politics, Saakashvili also holds a substantial degree of both formal and informal power. Not only does the Georgian constitution gives the president the authority to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers and other officials (authority that Saakashvili has used to fill the government with people to whom he is personally connected) but few people are placed on the UNM’s lists for parliament without the president’s approval.3 Saakashvili often governs through edict rather than legislation; makes key decisions himself or with his closest advisers rather than through consultation with parliament (or even, at times, the cabinet of ministers); and retains a network of relationships outside the country that are extremely important both for himself and for Georgia.

Thus, the Georgian government is dominated by a strong ruling party, led by the man who founded it. Nevertheless, Georgia is at something of a crossroads with regards to the evolution of its regime. The current balance between the governing party and the top leader cannot continue indefinitely, and certainly cannot continue without Saakashvili. Accordingly, the 2012 and 2013 elections will help determine what kind of semi-authoritarian regime Georgia will become: a highly personalised, sultanistic regime, or a more fluidly functioning corporatist regime built around strong institutions rather than one individual.

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Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. His new book The Color Revolutions will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press later this year.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

April-May 2012

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