After less than a year in office, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is flirting with leaving politics. While it's still unclear if he will actually resign by December 31, analysts say an early departure will have a lasting impact on the country's political development and stability one way or another.
Political observers are split on whether Ivanishvili will actually leave power or if his coalition can survive without having him in office - not to mention the possible impact of an unplanned transfer of power on the country's wobbly economy. But leaving before the end of his term could be a positive trigger for Georgian democracy, suggests Lincoln Mitchell, an associate research scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.
Ivanishvili, the 57-year-old oligarch who swept to power after his coalition won the October 2012 parliament elections, has never made a secret of the fact he hates politics. Formerly a recluse known for his fabulous wealth (around €4bn by some counts) and philanthropy, Ivanishvili has repeatedly stated he would like to leave office early - if conditions in the country "permit" his exit from politics. "Politics has never been my interest. I had to go into politics as a duty to the people. I intend to depart before the year's end. I have done what I could, and I do not intend to return to politics," Ivanishvili was quoted as saying in a July 20 article published in Lietuvos Rytas.
Ivanishvili stressed his intent to break down Georgia's legacy of strong leaders when he officially launched Giorgi Margvelashvili's presidential candidacy on August 12. By supporting the philosopher and former education minister in the October presidential elections, Ivanishvili said: "We are destroying an entrenched stereotype in Georgia that the president should be a superman and everyone's patron, who will decide everything instead of us."
Mitchell, who served as an informal advisor to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, said if Ivanishvili decides to leave the post of prime minister before the end of his term, it could break the "cycle" of strong leaders and weak parties that lead to regime collapse - a trend that has haunted Georgia's political development since it regained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. "We can tell each other stories that Georgia is a competitive two-party system and those stories make us feel good for a lot of reasons... it makes those of us who really care about Georgian democracy feel good because it means Georgia is more democratic, moving in the right direction," Mitchell tells bne in a phone interview. "We western observers cannot, on the one hand, decry the extent to which personalities dominate Georgian politics and, on the other hand, say well we don't want this guy to leave."
If Ivanishvili decides to voluntarily leave, it could be a boost to Georgian democracy, agrees political scientist Alexander Rondeli, but not if the country's weak political parties are unable to fill the power vacuum. "If you don't have strong leaders, it means you have to have strong and normal well-developed political parties," he says. "Our one-man-show parties have to finish, it is time already to have normal parties."
Ivanishvili's coalition, the Georgian Dream, is made up of six very diverse parties spanning brand new political alliances like the PM's own Georgian Dream party and the Republic Party, one of Georgia's largest political parties. But none of them come close to Ivanishvili's popularity rating, notes political scientist Koba Turmanidze. Even party leaders, like the Republican's Davit Usupashvili - currently speaker of the parliament and the most highly rated politician after Ivanishvili, according to a June survey by Caucasus Research Resource Center - is riding on the prime minister's wide support amoung voters, Turmanidze says.
Georgia's fundamentally weak party system could undermine any potential benefits of Ivanishvili giving up power, especially if he is planning to remain at the head informally, Turmanidze believes. "The loyalty of that coalition is based on all his personal achievements or perceived future achievements as head of state... The coalition - although he says differently - cannot afford to lose him," he says. "It is not real that he will step down, he will not play a real role in the coalition and the parties will compete with each other - that is absolutely [untrue]. These parties are, in the best case, clubs of friends. They are not real parties."
But Mitchell stresses that in the event that Ivanishvili does resign, even if that means the Georgian Dream coalition collapses or the government becomes less efficient, the precedent could make the country's democracy stronger. "There is a lot of talk about what might happen if the Georgian Dream coalition collapses or breaks apart," he says. "What happens is democracy would move forward."
The risk that Georgian politics might become a bit less stable is a reasonable one to take if it means democracy continues to evolve, notes Rondeli. "It is time already not to rely on strong leaders for Georgia. It is time already, despite terrible pressure coming from Russia... that we start to learn to rule ourselves without strong figures," he says. "It is risky, but I don't think there is any politics without risk."