Both Sides are Wrong
11 October, 2012

Two different narratives about the election have arrived and they are both wrong. Periodically, before the elections, The National Democratic Institute based in Washington came out with a poll that indicated a much larger portion of the likely voters supported the United National Movement than Georigan Dream. Many in the UNM still believe that the NDI poll was correct at the time it was done, that the UNM was in the lead. They are making the same mistake NDI did

which is ignoring the 46% of respondents who refused to answer and thereby assuming that those with no answer would vote for the UNM and Georgian Dream in similar proportions to those who were comfortable answering.


Then the prison videos came out, and an improbably large portion of the voters in a moment of outrage changed their mind and voted for GD. Aside from being incorrect, this assessment will cause UNM problems if it lasts. First of all, it is not reasonable to believe that some videos, even some as wrenching as those particular ones, could change the mind of the electorate so much so quickly. The reality is that GD was much more popular, or the UNM was much less popular than they thought even before the release of the prison videos. As UNM undergos the process of renewal that successful opposition requires, they most be honest with themselves about this. Although it is easier to tell yourself that you lost because of a video rather than because of a systemic failure of the party, it is not true. This could in the worst case even prevent the introspection necessary to begin the solution to the problem.


The problem with the NDI poll is that it headlined with the UNM v GD number, where is the real headline should have been the number of people who refused to answer. And that number was based on fear; and fear had become an important part of life under the UNM for many people. It was a fear that would lead people to avoid taking risks that could have put them on the wrong side of the authorities. Because if a citizen ended up on the wrong side of the authorities, they had no chance of a fair outcome. That feeling lead to a great portion of GD's support and was clearly expressed in the polls. So the UNM didn't understand the views of the people of Georgia. They had excellent political consultants, most importantly Greenberg Rosner one of the best but they still got it wrong. Everybody in the UNM expected to win. Now that they have lost they must understand clearly why. A useful first step is a book called Being Wrong by Kathryn Shulz, put out by Radarami available in Georigan (disclosure, I am on the board).


But many in the Georigan Dream also have a fundamental misunderstanding about what happened on the first of October. They feel that because of fraud and voter intimidation, they did not receive nearly the number of votes they should have received. They believe that their support in reality was overwhelming and most importantly that those who did not support them have some direct and corrupt relationship with the UNM. They believe that there is a moral equivalence between the Rose Revolution and the GD taking power. They are wrong as well.


There was some fraud in the elections and most likely significant voter intimidation in parts of the country. But in general the elections were a fair representation of the will of the voters. Some may say this was because the UNM is democratic, others may say that this is because the UNM expected to win fairly, but whatever the case it was a largely fair election. It is more difficult to say if there were many potential opposition supporters who were pressured not to vote. Samegrelo had a five percent lower turnout than the rest of the country, and this may point to potential vote suppression. But in the end, voters in some circumstances have to be sufficiently motivated that they will take risks to go vote and in this case the number who didn't is likely to be small part of the population overall.


The celebrations along Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi after the exit poll results were announced at eight pm on this first October had a different feeling than after Shevardnadze famously said "I'm going home" on the evening of the 23rd of November 2003. In 2003 the number of people who wanted Shevardnadze to stay in power was tiny. There was almost complete social consensus not only that he should resign but that Saakashvili's team was the one for the job. The demonstrations had mounted, but on Sunday there were many children, as parents brought them to see this historic event. This year it was different. Certainly the mood was celebratory, but there were many fewer people on the street. The loudest were people who were very young, from seventeen to twenty five, too young to have participated fully in the events of 2003; they wanted their turn. There were no children. And even in Tbilisi with strong GD support, there are many who support the UNM and they stayed home. Some GD supporters believe that anybody worried about the GD coming to power must blindly support the UNM and have been paid off or are somehow biased in a malevolent way. That is wrong. There are many hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia who support the overall UNM project for good and carefully considered reasons and have real and justified fears about GD.


Paradoxically, this is the same mistake that some in the UNM made over the years, by thinking that anybody who didn't support them or even anybody that criticised them was somehow corrupt, or against Georgia's modernisation, or a tool of the Kremlin. Now GD must try to understand the very large block of Georgia that does not support them, why they don't support them, and how to communicate with them in some way. If they ignore this group, stereotype it or label it in a crude and pejorative way, the group will grow bigger and will grow angry.


Having two or three groups of citizens that disagree with each other is natural. That is the way things work in a democracy. More sins have been committed under the flag of national unity than any other. The key to success in this system is first recognising that the other views exists, understanding who holds those views and why, respecting them and listening to them. There hasn't been much of that in Georgia's recent past. But there will be now, and it will strengthen the state and the nation more than anything else.