Elections Are Not Enough: Georgia Needs a New Model of Democracy

"Under Georgia's current electoral system, outcomes have led to a dangerous democratic decay," write Stephen Jones and Natalie Sabanadze in Eurasianet.

This article was originally published on Eurasianet on March 10, 2023.

After massive demonstrations, the Georgian Dream government has stepped back, promising on March 9 to withdraw its controversial “foreign agents” law, which had passed its first hearing in parliament two days earlier. The bill followed Russia’s Foreign Agent law of 2012, specifically targeting Georgian NGOs and media organizations.

The events this week underscore the repetitive nature of Georgian politics. Exhilarating breakthroughs to democracy are followed by periods of backsliding into authoritarianism. Governments come with promises of reform and progress but end up desperately holding on to power. After 10 years of post-Saakashvili governance, we have returned to single-party dominance, parliamentary boycotts, and mutual mudslinging. Hopes for advancing Georgian democracy through greater accountability, inclusive decision-making, power-sharing, and tolerance of the opposition, including civil society, have evaporated.

Structural flaws in Georgia’s Western imported political institutions, and most particularly in the system of elections, have consistently undermined the legitimacy of Georgia’s governors. Elections in Georgia are demonstrations of elite rivalry which provide infrequent public scrutiny (once every election cycle) and preserve a system of electoral oligarchy.  They do not promote competition and the outcomes do not reflect the concerns or needs of Georgia’s citizenry. Elections and elite dominated parties – an NDI poll last month revealed that 61 percent of Georgian voters do not think any party represents their interests – are the weakest link in the electoral system. After the Rose Revolution in 2003, and Georgian Dream’s electoral victory in 2012, it looked like participation, transparency and accountability might refresh Georgia’s democracy. But the new regimes quickly reverted to the Georgian norm – a single dominant party using the resources of the state, coopted businesses, and the judiciary to control its citizens.

Georgia’s democracy resembles the infamous Batumi tower, an impressive structure facing West towards the Black Sea, but with nothing inside for years. Lately it was transformed into a luxury hotel completely disconnected from the life of Batumi’s residents who continue to live in sub-standard housing. Georgia’s economic and political playing field is uneven and there is in practice little chance of changing the incumbent through popular elections. Comfortable parliamentary majorities allow the dominant party to adopt laws that undermine the independence of institutions, increase political control over the judiciary, and restrict civil rights. The language of politics is saturated with theatrical accusations of betrayal, dividing society into pro-government patriots and anti-government foreign agents.

The Russo-Ukrainian War

Georgia represents a displaced state – it is physically located in one region but mentally and politically wants to belong to another. Georgia’s top foreign policy priority has always been acceptance and recognition of its cultural, political, and geographic Europeanness. This goes back to the first Democratic Republic of Georgia between 1918-21, when the leadership’s entire focus was on securing European protection against the “Asiatic despotism” of Bolshevism.

The Associated Trio of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, established in 2021, is the latest incarnation of Georgia’s attempt to present itself as part of a European alliance. But the intensification of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2022 has highlighted serious disagreement over Georgia’s pro-European direction. The war against Ukraine cemented Ukraine’s Europeanness, but Georgia has returned to a gray zone. The government, following Ukraine’s lead, applied for EU membership in March 2022, but its fear of Russian retaliation and its muted condemnation of Russia has led to a delinking from the pro-Western Associated Trio. The Georgian government’s rhetoric displays a growing ideological union with Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Proposing the Russia-style law “On transparency of foreign influence,” is the latest sign of Georgia’s pivot away from the West and its values.

The link between Georgia’s political class and the Georgian people is broken.

Polarization and democratization

Polarization among Georgia’s political parties is undergirded by economic polarization, a source of social and political exclusion which reinforces the isolation of citizens from their political parties. In 2022, Georgia’s parties were more divided than ever. They are unable to collaborate or build consensus around demands for jobs, improved healthcare and housing. Economic polarization has led to a stark urban-rural divide and exclusion of ethnic minorities in the regions from political life.

The link between Georgia’s political class and the Georgian people is broken. Georgia’s political parties have failed to develop a social and political base among citizens. Differences between the parties are personal rather than ideological. The democratization model promoted by Western governments has been unable to prevent Georgia’s move toward a hybrid or competitive authoritarian regime. Democratic backsliding is a partner of political polarization. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in their book, How Democracies Die, that “if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.” However, not all democracies respond to polarization in the same way. Deliberative or consensus democracies, in contrast to Westminster-type majoritarian democracies, are structurally designed to prevent and manage societal conflict. They may be slow and indecisive, but they compare well with the standardized, election-centered Western approach of democracy promotion which has failed countries like Georgia. 

Elections are not enough

Polarization is multi-dimensional – but at its heart it is a failure of citizen engagement through democratic, institutional means. Georgia’s citizens are politically and economically powerless. Western democracy building programs in Georgia have focused on a parliamentary model, but all attempts to strengthen the Georgian parliament’s power over the executive, to democratize political parties, to create an independent judiciary, and to strengthen the role of local government, have failed to constrain the autonomy of Georgia’s political and economic elites.

The Georgian state has become independent of its citizens, and it’s time to bring the citizens back. Elections alone – with their emphasis on periodic participation in a ritual of unbalanced competition between unaccountable parties – are not up to the task.

It is only in exceptional circumstances, as in 2003 when mass demonstrations overturned fraudulent elections, or in 2012 when an oligarch had the resources to challenge the incumbent party, that electors seem to have agency. Parliamentary elections are not conducive to power sharing and electoral loss leads to political banishment. With political banishment comes political exclusion and vulnerability to persecution.

Beyond parliamentary democracy?

The problem with Georgian democracy is both customary and structural. By customary we mean the traditional confrontational manner of doing politics in Georgia. Structural describes the incentives that favor such behavior, such as a winner-takes-all electoral system and top-down parties. Georgia needs a system of democratic governance that would provide citizens with a participatory role and allow forms of non-party representation in and outside parliament. When the European Council granted Georgia a roadmap to EU membership in June 2022, it highlighted weaknesses around accountability, transparency, participation, and institutional independence (most notably in the judiciary). Political polarization was at the top of the Council’s list of issues. Brussels was not specific on how to reduce polarization but referred to the April 19, 2021, agreement between the government and opposition. This endorsed a fully proportional system, a 2 percent electoral threshold, and power-sharing in parliament which gave opposition MPs the chairmanship of at least five committees and leadership of at least one parliamentary delegation. 

The consensus model assumes that no one, including groups that lose, should be excluded from participation in decision-making or from a share of power if they are affected by the decisions taken. Consensus models prevail among EU members and EU structures are designed not to create clear winners but rather to avoid clear losers. According to Arend Lijphart, consensus democracy is defined by diffusion as opposed to the concentration of power. But the Georgian model is defined by a high concentration of power, represented by a unicameral parliament, a unitary state structure, and a majoritarian or mixed electoral system with essentially two parties in political competition. This system has left large segments of Georgia’s population without representation. Territorial decentralization and a voice for minority groups is particularly important.

Beyond parliament

Between 1918-21, Georgia’s social democratic leaders established an innovative system of citizen governance. In conditions of economic and institutional collapse, the republic’s founders constructed a system of citizen self-government. It was imperfect and hamstrung by a lack of financial resources, but it created the outlines of a different form of democracy. Noe Jordania, the republic’s elected leader, described a system in which parliament would share power with popularly elected institutions. “A parliamentary republic is fundamentally different from a democratic republic,” Jordania declared. A democratic republic “establishes as its basic principle, the people’s political self-government. … power is not just gathered by the center but is divided between the center and the periphery. The people elect not only parliamentary deputies, but the executive, administrators, judges and so on.” Citizens would have “their own governing organs, independent of parliament.”

Central to Jordania’s design is popular participation with empowered citizens rather than a self-perpetuating governing elite. The legislature would share power with self-governing local assemblies known as erobas, responsible for local courts, postal communications, hospitals, schools, local militias, food supplies, supervision of land reform, and tax collection. Such mechanisms, which challenge the confines of parliamentarianism, could serve as an example for Georgian voters today. 

Open democracy?

The failings of Georgia’s electoral democracy fit into a broader critique of representative systems. Much has been written over the last two decades on the inadequacies of elections and representative models. For Helene Landemore, representative systems are flawed models of citizen power, and generate the sort of partisanship and polarization which undermine political inclusion and citizen participation beyond election time. She argues that electoral systems like Georgia’s lead to the “enclosure of power” and to elected oligarchies which in Georgia’s case have ruled through flawed elections that simulate political consent. Georgia’s elected representatives not only fail to represent the electorate but fail to even look like them.

In Georgia, the electoral system feeds into a system which undermines democratic growth – where disillusion, low trust, and minimal participation predominate. There are more effective ways of stimulating participation, accountability, and outcomes than parliamentary elections once every four years or violent demonstrations on Tbilisi’s streets, a reflection of the absence of citizen power. We can look to Uganda, Iceland, Ireland, Canada and elsewhere to different models, where national citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries (which focus on specific policies at the sub-national level like health or planning), and citizens’ councils can promote popular input into national, municipal and community politics. Such methods of public engagement – when properly institutionalized and managed – could be central in the development (and the survival) of Georgia’s democracy. Under Georgia’s current electoral system, outcomes have led to dangerous democratic decay.

Without new approaches to organizing Georgia’s political life, the country cannot evolve into a quality democracy characterized by citizen participation, transparency, accountability, and political stability. It is time for Georgia’s democratic supporters, including democracy building institutions and foundations abroad, to rethink the failed standard of election-centered majoritarian models. Without imaginative and far-reaching systemic changes, it is unlikely Georgia will break out of this vicious circle of democratic breakthroughs and decay which has dominated its political life for the last 30 years. It is time to restructure the future.

Director, Program on Georgian Studies, Harvard University; Professor of Modern Georgian History, Ilia State University, Tbilisi

Stephen Jones is an expert on post-communist societies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Cyrus Vance Visiting Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College