The growing pains of Georgia's democracy
Tuesday, 18 December 2012 13:05

AFTER Bidzina Ivanishvili declared his intention to enter politics at the end of 2011, a barrage of claims and counter-claims polarised the country. Emotions ran high when Georgians went to the polls on October 1st. Given Georgia’s turbulent political history and the dominance of the United National Movement (UNM), the country’s first-ever constitutional transfer of power felt almost revolutionary.

A similar spirit infused some of the new government’s early moves, such as the arrest of a score of former officials last month. To ordinary Georgians, this was not surprising: Mr Ivanishvili promised as much on the campaign trail. It was also a relatively easy fix: arresting alleged wrongdoers is much easier than solving the deep socio-economic problems that led many Georgians to vote for Georgian Dream. (Recent polls show that reforming the country’s healthcare, agriculture and pensions are Georgians’ top three priorities).

The arrests went down badly abroad. Foreign politicians, diplomats and pundits were quick to weigh in, with varying degrees of nuance and fairness. Showing some responsiveness, the government pledged to hold fair trials, and quickly drew up draft reforms to boost judicial independence. The rate of arrests slowed.

Some, but not all, members of the new government understand that they will have to hold themselves to the same standards in future. That message needs to be embraced across the board. So too does a stronger understanding of what the rule of law entails. When, for example, Maja Panjikidze, the foreign minister, proclaimed in Washington on November 30th that those arrested are “criminals and guilty”, she undermined the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence.

While some commentators worried about a possible reversion to autocracy, a more immediate problem is majoritarianism. Belief in the primacy of the will of the democratic majority makes an easy bedfellow for Georgia’s winner-takes-all, zero-sum approach to politics. But it is a poor guide for democratic rule. As Thomas Melia, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, said in a visit to Tbilisi last week, the key difficulty in Georgia now is “to reconcile majority rule with minority rights".

Most obviously, that applies to politics. Allthough it lost the election, the UNM still received 40% of the vote. In theory, that gives it a powerful mandate as a party of opposition. Mr Ivanishvili, whose own approval rating has hit an all-time high of 80%, gives this short shrift. In a recent Georgian Dream coalition meeting, he said the UNM “keep on living based on their old ideology, based on violence and lies–something that has been rejected by the Georgian population”. Unless they change, he said, they will not constitute “serious opponents” in the next elections. That attitude is consistent with his reluctance to speak out against the harassment of local government officials loyal to the UNM in west Georgia. More than 15 have resigned since the election.

The rights of social and religious minorities are another concern. A recent confrontation broke out in Guria, west Georgia, where Muslims were prevented from holding religious ceremonies in a private home. Here Mr Ivanishvili showed more resolve, issuing an urgent statement calling for calm. Curiously, though, he blamed “provocation” by unnamed sources, and underlined that such religious intolerance is “contrary to Georgia’s traditions”. That seems unduly optimistic: in polls, 29% of respondents said that such religious practices should not be allowed. Even if Mr Ivanishvili’s line of argument reassures the country’s Muslims, it offers little solace to homosexuals and other minorities. Homophobia has a strong tradition in Georgia.

This is not to say the UNM is blameless. Mr Saakashvili stands accused of trying to discredit the new government abroad, and of stoking things up at home. Clearly, both sides need to do better. The appointment of a new army chief of staff on December 4th following the arrest of his predecessor in November, provides a rare instance of cooperation between Mr Saakashvili and Irakli Alasania, the new defence minister. Agreeing the future rules of parliamentary procedure, the electoral code for the next elections, and where parliament should sit will require both sides to work together.

Sharing power, as both parties must do now, requires an enormous mental shift. That will take time. After all, nobody within the UNM, and few within the Georgian Dream, expected this situation during the election campaign. Nor was the constitution designed with this in mind. The Christmas break provides an opportunity for both sides to take stock of a momentous year--and make some constructive New Year’s resolutions.

source: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/economist/QxiO/~3/1v-Gqrx-dpk/georgian-politics

 

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