Georgia's main opposition party, the United National Movement (ENM), again appears to be heading for a split into two wings, one of which unequivocally supports its founder, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, while the other considers him a liability.
At a three-hour meeting of the party's Political Council on November 30, the pro-Saakashvili faction succeeded by the narrowest of margins in averting a motion by the rival faction to convene a congress of some 2,000 delegates next month that would elect as the party's new chairman Davit Bakradze, who headed the ENM faction in the last parliament.
Instead, the Political Council voted behind closed doors by 25 votes to 24 with one abstention to hold a congress of some 7,000 delegates at which no new chairman will be elected, and Saakashvili will be confirmed in the post of honorary leader. Saakashvili was formally removed as chairman in December 2015 after he acquired Ukrainian citizenship and was therefore stripped of Georgian citizenship. At that juncture the ENM declared it would not elect a new chairman, and that Saakashvili would remain its "unchallenged leader."
Veteran party member and former ENM parliament deputy Nodar Tsiklauri, who is one of the leaders of the pro-Saakashvili wing, told journalists it was imperative that the party should not elect a new chairman precisely because Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party that defeated the ENM in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot, has been trying to minimize Saakashvili's role in Georgian politics for the past four years.
Tsiklauri also said over 80 percent of members of the party's district organizations were in favor of Saakashvili remaining party leader, and it would be "electoral suicide" for the party to distance itself from him.
ENM lawmaker and erstwhile Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, who is seen as heading the more moderate faction that considers the unpredictable Saakashvili a liability, told journalists after the Political Council vote that the vote was at odds with his position, but "part of the democratic process."
Bokeria pointed out, as he has done before, that Saakashvili, who resigned last month as governor of Ukraine's Odesa Oblast, is barred by virtue of no longer being a Georgian citizen from participating in Georgian politics. The ENM needs a leader under whom it can develop and adapt to new political circumstances, Bokeria continued, and Bakradze is the best candidate for that post.
Independent commentator Zaal Anjaparidze, however, told the news portal Caucasus Knot that Bakradze "has never been an independent political figure." He suggested that Bokeria, who is not popular, aspires to the role of eminence grise, who will direct the party through Bakradze as nominal leader.
Both factions are clearly anxious to downplay the possibility of a split within the party ranks, especially given that it controls only 27 of the 150 parliament mandates. (In the wake of the parliamentary elections in October, the moderate wing of the Political Council prevailed over the Saakashvili supporters who had advocated boycotting runoffs in 50 constituencies and not participating in the work of the new legislature.)
Tsiklauri told journalists prior to the November 30 Political Council meeting that he did not think "the situation is so dramatic that anyone will quit the party," while lawmaker Giorgi Gabashvili, speaking for those party members who advocate electing a new chairman, stressed that they are not out to distance the ENM from Saakashvili. "This is not a political conflict or burning bridges with anyone," Gabashvili said.
Saakashvili for his part has thanked all those who demonstrated their trust in him by "making the correct choice" and opting for holding a congress worthy of "a democratic, European-style party," thereby thwarting what he termed "a bid to distance me from the party."