Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Recent Elections in Georgia: At Long Last, Stability?

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Recent Elections in Georgia: At Long Last, Stability?

Article excerpt

Georgia held its fourth contested parliamentary elections 31 October 1999 (the fifth, if one includes the 1918 multiparty elections that produced a Social Democratic government that was forced into exile by the Red Army in 1921) and its fourth presidential election on 9 April 2000. Press reports emphasized the endorsement the elections provided to President Eduard Shevardnadze and his party, the Citizens' Union of Georgia, which won a clear majority in the parliament. At the same time, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were marred by heavy-handed manipulation of the political atmosphere preceding the balloting. The parliamentary elections also continued a troubling trend in Georgian politics: the exclusion of significant segments of the political spectrum from representation in the legislature.

Perhaps more than any other former Soviet republic, Georgia has emphasized the development of political parties. Party list voting is the chief method for choosing members of parliament: since 1992, 150 of 235 parliamentarians have been chosen by proportional voting.(1) The remainder, just over one-third, are chosen from single-member districts that correspond to Soviet-era administrative entities.(2) Each election, however, has taken place under a different set of roles, which has had a major impact on the composition of the parliament. The party list system was also employed in November 1998 to choose local councils.

In theory, a party list system should contribute to the formation of strong parties and a more stable party system. In practice, however, Georgian political parties remain highly personalized and organizationally weak. Like all other former Soviet republics that have moved to elections to select leaders, Georgia has faced the problem of building a party system virtually from nothing. Initially, many of the groups that sought a place in Georgian politics made a name for themselves based on their ability to turn out a few hundred or a few thousand supporters for rallies and demonstrations. In Georgia's first parliamentary elections in 1990, the party with the greatest institutional and material advantages, the Georgian Communist Party, made a feeble attempt to hold onto power and placed a distant second to the nationalist movement led by the anti-Soviet dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The Communist Party was later banned and never re-emerged as a significant force in Georgian politics.

Gamsakhurdia's victory and the discrediting of the Communist Party were in part a reaction to the events of 9 April 1989, when Soviet troops violently dispersed demonstrators who had occupied the main thoroughfare in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Georgians were increasingly attracted to appeals that called for an end to Soviet power in Georgia, and Gamsakhurdia emerged as the most credible opponent to the Communists.

The 1990 elections marked the beginning of the pattern in which significant political groupings remained outside the parliament. Many parties, chief among them the Gia Tchanturia's National Democratic Party, boycotted the elections to protest their "soviet" nature and formed their own National Congress. The National Congress claimed legitimacy as a popularly elected body, although the minimum turnout set by the alternative election organizers appears to have been fraudulently achieved.(3) Thus, a substantial number of political movements, including many that were accomplished organizers of street protests, were outside the parliament. Gamsakhurdia's Round Table coalition participated in the elections and won overwhelmingly. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia became the first popularly elected president in a Soviet republic, winning more than 86 percent of the vote.

The groups that remained outside parliament shifted from being Gamsakhurdia's rivals to being his enemies, and they were joined by a number of former allies of the increasingly erratic Georgian president. Antigovernment demonstrations culminated in late 1991 in an armed siege of the parliament building that forced Gamsakhurdia to flee. …

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