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Can Georgia's Former Ruling Party Reinvent Itself?

  • Liz Fuller

United National Movement leader Davit Bakradze says that the party's responsiblity to voters "has increased tenfold," since it's the only real pro-Western opposition force in the new legislature.

United National Movement leader Davit Bakradze says that the party's responsiblity to voters "has increased tenfold," since it's the only real pro-Western opposition force in the new legislature.

Ever since Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party secured a constitutional majority in electoral runoffs late last month, its most prominent opposition rival, the United National Movement, has been riven by disagreements over both short-term tactics and longer-term strategy.

Those disagreements focus on the past and future role of the United National Movement's founder, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who last week resigned as governor of Ukraine's Odesa region. The crucial question is: Should the party elect a new leadership and set about rebranding itself over the next four years with an eye to the next parliamentary ballot in 2020? Or is Saakashvili, who is still technically the party's chairman despite having acquired Ukrainian citizenship and been stripped of Georgian citizenship, an asset that the party's leaders would be foolish and short-sighted to ditch?

Immediately after the voting on October 8, the United National Movement appeared to be on the verge of splitting into a radical faction headed by Saakashvili, who advocated a boycott of both the runoffs and the new parliament, and the moderate pragmatists, who argued that the party owed it to its electorate to take up its parliament mandates. At a meeting on October 12, the party’s most senior members voted 33-9, with seven abstentions, for the latter course of action.

Georgian Dream went on to defeat United National Movement challengers in 48 of the 50 second-round runoffs, giving it a total of 115 seats in the new legislature, compared with 27 for the United National Movement. Senior members, including Davit Bakradze, who topped the United National Movement's list of candidates, again argued that since the party will be the only real pro-Western opposition force in the new legislature, its members' obligation vis-a-vis the electorate "has increased tenfold."

The United National Movement has since embarked upon an intensive evaluation of the factors that contributed to its defeat, a process that individual members say is "perfectly normal" and presages neither a split in the party's ranks nor its disintegration. The two putative factions nonetheless differ over the reasons for the party's defeat, for which each implicitly blames the other, and the need for leadership change.

Mikheil Saakashvili has said that individual United National Movement leaders “should learn from their mistakes and assume their share of responsibility” for the party’s defeat.

Mikheil Saakashvili has said that individual United National Movement leaders “should learn from their mistakes and assume their share of responsibility” for the party’s defeat.

While virtually all senior United National Movement representatives, including Saakashvili, continue to highlight what former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava termed the recourse by Georgian Dream to "every known falsification and some new ones," they differ over their extent and impact. Ugulava, for example, expresses doubt, as does another senior party member, Sergi Kapanadze, that falsification was the only or even the primary cause of the party's defeat.

That perception of a blatantly rigged election is not shared, either, by domestic or international election monitors, although they did note individual procedural violations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described the vote as "competitive" and "well-administered" and said that "fundamental freedoms were generally respected,” while the U.S. State Department said the elections cemented Georgia's position as "the leader of democratic reforms in the region."

At the same time, both Saakashvili and the moderate faction admit to tactical errors. In an address to party members and supporters on November 3, Ugulava, who is currently serving a 4 1/2-year jail term for misspending millions of laris of public funds in the run-up to the 2012 parliamentary ballot, argued that the United National Movement made a serious mistake in not saying clearly prior to the election who its candidate for prime minister would be if it won: Saakashvili or Bakradze. In that context, Ugulava seemed to imply that the prospect of Saakashvili occupying that post may have deterred voters. He also recalled that immediately after the October 8 vote, some party members suggested that Saakashvili's declaration that he would return to Georgia in the event of election victory may have had a similar effect.

Ugulava went on to call for electing an entire new party leadership and said he personally would step down as head of the United National Movement's Tbilisi branch.

The former mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, is currently serving a 4 1/2-year jail term for misspending millions of laris of public funds.

The former mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, is currently serving a 4 1/2-year jail term for misspending millions of laris of public funds.

The following day, November 4, the United National Movement's political council issued a statement saying it had decided to set up a special group to identify what mistakes were made during the election campaign and to outline its strategy. Its conclusions would then be submitted to a party congress next month. The statement further denied accusations that the moderates had cut a deal with Georgian Dream's founder, wealthy businessman and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely believed to influence, if not dictate, government policy.

Saakashvili, for his part, responded with a statement saying that individual United National Movement leaders "should learn from their mistakes and assume their share of responsibility" for the party's defeat, rather than laying the blame on others. He rejected as tantamount to "the usurpation of the party by one faction in its own interests" the idea of the party’s political council (Bakradze’s brainchild) making key decisions during "meetings held behind closed doors." He proposed instead convening a congress of several thousand delegates to elect a new chairman and leadership body "who bear no responsibility for the mistakes made during the election campaign and who can rise to the challenges the party currently faces."

Saakashvili also sought to give the impression that the call for electing a new leadership was the initiative of "one or two whimsical people" within the party's upper echelons who "made numerous mistakes," including ignoring the advice of grassroots activists. (Commentators identified those "whimsical people" as Ugulava and former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria.)

But some analysts say that, on the contrary, the "Saakashvili wing" within the United National Movement is very small. Certainly the vote on whether or not the party's elected deputies should take up their mandates or boycott the new legislature suggests that the moderates predominate within the political council, which would explain Saakashvili's demand that it should not play the key role in determining the new leadership.

As yet, it is unclear who might aspire to the role of party chairman. Technically, Saakashvili has never been formally removed from that post, although Georgian law bars non-Georgian citizens from heading political parties. On the other hand, as Washington-based analyst Michael Cecire pointed out to Eurasianet, Saakashvili still enjoys support among the party's grass roots, and in recent years it has become increasingly dependent on him for funding.

Of the other potential candidates, Ugulava remains in jail, while a second leading figure, Bokeria, lacks charisma and is reportedly extremely unpopular. (A year ago, a Russian-hosted website named Ukrainian WikiLeaks posted what was billed as a transcript of a conversation at Istanbul airport between Saakashvili and Bokeria about the possibility of provoking mass antigovernment protests in Tbilisi. Bokeria was summoned for questioning about that audio file, which was never authenticated.)

In the long term, however, merely selecting a new chairman may not be the most important issue for the United National Movement. Independent analyst Zaal Anjaparidze argues that unless the party breaks definitively with the past and publicly apologizes for the serious crimes committed by some of its leaders during its nine years in office, the majority of voters will continue to reject it.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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