Extreme polarisation holds Georgia back – new DRI study and event

Georgia is one of the most polarised countries in Europe. A ‘winner-takes-all’ political culture has created deep divisions and instability. The two main political parties mobilise voters by using extremely polarising rhetoric and crowd out the moderate middle ground. Georgians have very little trust in state institutions. Political patronage weakens the country’s management capacity and economic growth. Reducing extreme polarisation would help Georgia widen the space for pluralism and consolidate its democratic gains. 

These are the key findings of a new DRI study, launched in partnership with the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) at a conference in Tbilisi on January 26.

The report cites several negative impacts of polarisation, including dysfunctional policymaking, political patronage and regular changes to the constitution and electoral system. Recommendations include awareness campaigns to make the problem and its consequences better understood, promoting consensual and broadly inclusive constitutional and major legislative reforms, and redressing human rights violations in the country’s recent past.

Ana Natsvlishvili, GYLA’s Chairwoman, says “A rights-based approach to replace the highly-politicised debates about Georgia’s past and present human rights violations would help the country heal old wounds and come together.”

The ruling party and the opposition publically vilify one another, which many view as a deliberate tactic to distract attention from the real issues that matter. The media are also criticised for being complicit in polarising public discourse, which has resulted in high levels of public distrust.

DRI Executive Director Michael Meyer-Resende says “Disagreement in a democracy gives voters a clear choice, but when opponents become enemies and arguments personal, not policy-based, democracy turns against itself.”

Frequent constitutional reforms have become a source of polarisation in Georgia, where up to six constitutional frameworks have been applied since independence in 1991. There have also been attempts to change electoral rules before almost every election. Expert Fernando Casal Bertoa says “Everything about the process of democratic consolidation requires time. Time for politicians and voters to adapt to the institutional configuration is key. Nothing is worse than continuous change for a new democracy.”

DRI and GYLA presented the outcomes of research and four fact-finding consultations with civil society and the media at the event. The analysis of public statements of Georgian politicians during the 2016 parliamentary campaign revealed a large proportion of extreme statements that vilify and demonise political opponents.

Read the summary fact finding report in English and Georgian.  The full fact finding report will be published by DRI and GYLA in March 2017.

The report was published within the project on ‘Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia’ implemented by DRI and GYLA in 2016. The project is funded by the German Foreign Office.

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