Unlike France, Ireland or Sweden, in Georgia it is mandatory for political parties to register. But unless a party has extreme aims, the process is efficient, easy and inexpensive.
Two years ago, over 100 political parties were registered formally in Georgia. But despite this figure, if there were party elections tomorrow, only 6 or fewer parties would reach 1% barrier, and perhaps two or three would cross the 5% threshold to achieve seats in parliament.
Two party systems work well in some democracies where the party that enjoys the majority of seats becomes the ruling party and the second the opposition, with a history of successful transitions of power between the two. Since 2004 the Georgian political arena has been dominated by one party that always had either a majority or constitutional majority of seats, 51% and 75% respectively. After the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 none of the parties that have ruled Georgia have managed to re-achieve political power.
More importantly, a considerable segment of voters has for many years been undecided about their party choice. Before the 2012 elections some experts thought that the large number of undecided voters were those who were afraid of President Saakashvili’s regime (and some indeed had legitimate reasons to be scared of expressing political views openly) and were not answering party preference questions during opinion surveys; resulting in a large bias between published survey data and official election results. While I do not find this to be a fully acceptable argument, the fact is that a large number of undecided voters still exists. This was also true during Mr. Shevardnadze’s last few years, although during his last term Georgia enjoyed more political diversity - in 2003 6 political parties reached a 7% threshold.
Voting is not mandatory in Georgia, but still, why is there a large number of voters who say that they will vote but can’t name their political favorites even a few days prior to general elections? Again, being scared of the incumbent regime is not a good explanation. As is shown in Chart 1, well above 1/3 of the politically active population has no clear choice, and this is consistent over the last 16 years. In addition, on average 2% of these respondents will spoil the ballot.
Interestingly, during surveys a large majority of voters say that they would turn out to cast their ballots in upcoming elections. GORBI often measures the likelihood of voting by asking voters to state the likelihood of their casting a ballot on a scale of one to ten. In our 2016 national pre-election surveys, the average score was 8.01 out of 10 - a very high number. The same readiness for election participation was found among ethnic Armenians and Azeris, 7.37 and 8.36 respectively.
Note: when most of experts in Georgia discuss discrepancies between official election turnout and survey results, they are critical towards higher figures in surveys but they are often using incorrect math. Surveys are conducted among residents in the country and do not cover the around 17% of registered voters who live abroad.
So, what is behind this behavior? Why are a majority of voters unable to state their party preference even a day or two before election day? The simplest answer is – poor choices.
In 2008 the state introduced a new election law which mandated funding from the state budget for major political parties. Overall, a few million GEL is paid to the most successful parties annually. However, this did not help to improve the situation (other than two parties, the rest are struggling to overcome the 5% threshold) and given the outcome one must question whether this money is well spent.
In addition, over the last 20 years there has been constant assistance from Western democracies to strengthen management culture in political parties including training, technical assistance and work-study excursions. This funding has shown some results, and is a reason that Georgia has a more advanced political party culture than many former Soviet countries. But the goal of Georgia’s development as a stable multi-party political culture has yet to be realized.
Aside from Georgian funding and Western assistance, we should not forget the third player in Georgia’s political development - Russia. The Russian Federation has also played a role as a source of funding for Georgian political parties and media.
Nevertheless, none of the above-mentioned activities (whether legal or illegal) helped to decrease apathy and uncertainty among likely voters.
Given these facts, is the logical conclusion that Georgian political parties should raise money from the national population and businesses like more developed democracies?
This would not be an easy system for parties, and they know it. Money is needed for any organization to function and both people and businesses would donate only if political parties represented their concrete interests. These ‘interests’ could mean very straightforward and simple things. For example, my one GEL would go to the party who would promise to introduce licenses for taxi drivers. I might donate another GEL to the party who require all cars to pass a technical roadworthiness test before being allowed on public streets. I will certainly donate another GEL to the party who can remove “Staianshiki” from the City Park spaces and providing these poor people with a basic compensation package. I live on the 16th floor and have to always carry 10 Tetri unless I want to take stairs, so I may even pay 3 GEL to the party that can make Tbilisi elevators free. These are basic ‘quality of life’ issues, and as a businessman I have a much longer list that would take another page of this newspaper to write!
So here is the question: will political parties try to take my and my peers’ money, or is it easier to rely on “easy” money from governments for the upcoming local elections?
GORBI is a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients. Since 2003, GORBI remains an exclusive member of Gallup International research network for its two decades of experience in survey research in post-Soviet Union countries, as well as Mongolia and Iraq. This data was provided exclusively to the Financial.