Three months after the Mongolian Parliamentary elections, another previously Communist country has gone to the polls. Georgia has managed to develop a strong relationship with the United States and Europe, and its elections on October 1 are being closely monitored by international agencies. What are the results of this election and what do Georgia and Mongolia tell us about the post-Communist democratic experience?
Georgia’s October 1, 2012 Elections
First of all, the results are far from clear at this point, with both major parties claiming a majority-win of 150-member parliament. That means a total of at least 76 seats, combined from 73 directly elected and 77 proportional. (http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25276) While the country’s Central Election Commission is unlikely to release even preliminary results until tomorrow, both President Saakashvili- head of the ruling United National Movement- and Bidzina Ivanishvili- opposition leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition- have claimed a majority win. Some exit polls suggested a slight advantage for the opposition, but since the polls were taken 4 hours before all voting was to stop, their usefulness has rightly been called into question. In his most recent statement, President Saakashvili claimed that while the opposition might have won the proportional race, it is clear that UNM faired far better in the directly elected seats, and would maintain its majority status in the Parliament. It seems that Tbilisi voters as a whole supported the opposition, but that outside of the capital, support for the ruling UNM remained strong. Most recently Ivanishvili claimed that the opposition had won at least 100 seats, putting it well ahead of the number needed for a clear majority.
As we wait for the official numbers to be released, it is worth noting that the results of this hotly debated election may remain contested for some time. Already, a number of complaints are surfacing regarding voting irregularities, with reports ranging from votes being cast without voter ID cards, to polling station officials openly supporting one party over another; but, note that nothing major has been reported. It is, of course, too early to know whether these irregularities are on a scale large enough to actually “buy” the election. As anyone familiar with Mongolian elections would instantly recognize, sometimes the allegations of fraud are just as shady and clouded in mystery as the irregularities themselves.
Regarding the issues, it is clear that Georgians went to the polls with three major concerns: prison reform and human rights, Russian-Georgian relations, and (closely tied to the second issue) how to approach the status of de facto independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Just weeks before the election, a video was released showing the abuse of prisoners in a prominent Georgian detention facility, badly damaging the authority of the ruling party. Some have blamed Saakashvili for his handling of the South Ossetia crisis and the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Ivanishvili, having made his fortune on Russian business ties, seems ready to begin the long process of resetting relations. While Georgian-Russian relations might not thaw anytime soon, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev refusing to meet with Saakashvili, a change in power might be necessary from a foreign policy standpoint.
Comparing Mongolia and Georgia
Looking back at our (Mongolia Focus’ writers’) experience in following Mongolian political developments, particularly the June 2012 Parliamentary election, a couple of important patterns seem to arise, regarding elections in new democracies.
Experience Matters. Mongolia has had slightly more experience with holding multi-party elections than Georgia, and it seems to show. In Mongolia’s most recent election, many analysts, Mongolian and international alike, were predicting huge problems with the new voting machines, voter registration, and voter ID cards. Despite the “rowdy” outcomes in the election this June, the procedure itself seemed largely flawless from my perspective as an international observer. All polling stations we visited seemed organized and the staff well trained. (See: https://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/2012/brief-election-observation-break-update/) The reports coming out of Georgia today look more like the claims lobbied against Mongolia 4 years ago. However, comparing Mongolia and Georgia’s history of electoral politics, Mongolia has seen 6 successful Parliamentary and 5 Presidential elections. Georgia, on the other hand, experienced a coup shortly after declaring independence from the Soviet Union, resulting in a new national leader that would not be replaced until the 2003 Rose Revolution. Following the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili was elected as President in 2004.
Mongolia has already been forced to deal with issues such as voter registration, ID cards, and fraud allegations. While they don’t always get it right, they seem to get closer following each election.
A rowdy democracy is still a democracy. The only thing for sure so far in the Georgian election is that nothing is clear, the campaigns were messy and “dirty”, the opposition was not well organized, but was able to garner significant support, and the prison scandal significantly weakened the UNM’s legitimacy and may have effected the final vote as well. If I was writing this post on Mongolia in June, I could have said almost the exact same thing, just substituting the arrest of Enkhbayar for the prison scandal. The good news is that “rowdiness” is hardly a bad sign for a developing democracy. Indeed, increased civil society involvement, a growing opposition, and the ability for observers to report irregularities are all signs of a thriving democratic system.
Trust Matters. Dr. Julian Dierkes and myself have remarked on how a lack of trust between political parties in Mongolia affects the results of elections and voter turn out in Mongolia, in our piece in East Asia Forum. Georgia’s UNM and Dream Coalition are likewise wary of each other, with Ivanishvili having guessed early on that Saakashvili would not relinquish his hold on power and Saakashvili openly accusing the opposition of having ties to the Kremlin.
Elections are the Proof in the Democratic Pudding. I argue that both Mongolia and Georgia are eager to prove their democratic credentials and avoid backsliding on their domestic reforms and commitments to human rights. While democratic development is ultimately dependent on domestic factors, both Mongolia and Georgia have formulated their foreign policy and security objectives with an eye to attracting the involvement of the US, EU, and NATO as a balance against their larger, potential threatening neighbors. Elections such as today’s in Georgia and Mongolia this past June are important bricks in the wall of democratic proof that both countries can leverage their relations with the world’s leading democratic powers.
Mongolia’s experience over the past 22 years has cemented its civil society and democratic system, reaching the “point of no return”. While Georgia has had a different, and significantly more turbulent political and social history following independence, it has already managed to attract attention to its fledgling democracy, at least in part as a result of the 2008 conflict with Russia, which turned the world’s attention to the little Caucasian country. Mongolia, on the other hand, had to prove that its democracy was real in the shadow of the world’s largest authoritarian states: The Russian Federation and the PRC. Historical and geographic differences might not make the Mongolian-Georgian comparison obvious, but both certainly have something to say about small state democratization and foreign policy.
(This Post can also be found on the author’s personal blog, Small Matters)