“Burning the middle ground”: A debate on political polarisation in Georgia

Georgia’s politics are extremely polarised. Many politicians operate with a friend-or-foe mindset. “You are either with me or against me” is a common attitude.  National elections are a winner-takes-all exercise affecting many public sector jobs.  Any national election becomes a potentially destabilising event.

These were the key conclusions of a consultation workshop that DRI and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) held in Tbilisi on 18 and 19 July, together with Georgian political parties, civil society and media.

Democracy needs a degree of political polarisation to offer voters identifiable choices. Yet, most participants agreed that in Georgia polarisation is so extreme that it works against democracy: Where major political parties vilify each other, the legitimacy of the whole democratic process is undermined. “We suffer from an ‘Article 6 problem”. The Soviet constitution indicated in its article 6 that the Communist party knows what is right and what is wrong. Now we have many political parties, but each believes that it is the only one that knows what is right and wrong“, said one participant. An NGO representative pointed out that civil society also suffers from these deep divisions because nobody believes in a non-partisan agenda. “The middle ground is burned, so voters often rally in the extremes”, she said describing the logic of electoral mobilisation. Some participants identified media and NGOs as contributing to polarisation.

What are the causes for this level of polarisation? Many participants pointed out that Georgian society never tried to agree on the basics of its history and recent past.Some key questions of our history –  Was Stalin a great ruler or an oppressor? What happened when we became independent? – have never been properly discussed. Even in relation to our past 25 years, everybody lives in their own version of history.” Recent past is often “either a subject of demonisation or ironisation”, both contributing to polarisation. Some participants referred to the economic interests of those with a seat in government: “Polarisation in Georgia is rooted in the struggle for economic resources. Sometimes it is all about the fight for bread and butter.” Other participants pointed out that the institutional arrangements favour polarisation, such as the majoritarian electoral system for half of the parliamentary seats, which in their view favours the emergence of a two party state; no explicit acknowledgement of opposition rights in the constitution was also mentioned.

Twenty-five participants, including the speaker of parliament, representatives of political parties, leading NGOs and journalists debated these questions under Chatham House rules during the two-day consultation workshop. Following this kick-off event, GYLA and DRI will explore political polarisation during the electoral campaign ahead of the 8 October parliamentary elections, its effects on Georgia as well as possible remedies. The project is financially supported by the German Foreign Office.

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