What About All Those Undecided Voters?

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. He has agreed to share some of his analyses with GEORGIA TODAY.

The most recent poll by NDI is not radically different from previous polls by NDI and other organizations. The two central findings of these polls, that the election will be close and that a very large number of Georgian voters are undecided, remain unchanged. The new poll shows the Georgian Dream (GD) opening up a slight lead over the United National Movement (UNM), but also shows that they may not win a majority of votes in the coming parliamentary election.

It is the persistently high number of undecided voters that is most significant. According to this poll, 57 percent of all voters still have not made up their mind about how they will vote in an election that is two months away. This number has fluctuated slightly over the last months, but remains surprisingly constant, and represents a very high number of undecided voters. At this point in the election cycle, if half that percentage of voters were undecided, it would still be a very high number. One way to put this in perspective is that most recent polls show that only 5-15 percent of the American electorate has not yet decided for whom they will vote for President in November.

Significantly, NDI’s polling gives voters the option to choose not just between the two major parties, the GD and the UNM, but from a myriad other parties as well. Thus, those voters who are undecided are not just unsatisfied with the two main parties, but are equally unimpressed with Georgia’s other political parties.

The large number of undecided voters to some extent represents a failure on the part of Georgia’s political parties, particularly the major ones, but is also evidence of a disconnection between Georgian political parties, and Georgian political institutions more broadly, on one hand, and the Georgian people on the other. Ironically, this disconnection is exacerbated, or at least revealed more, by the growing stability, even normality of Georgian political life.

During periods of instability the looming sense of crisis sharpens political differences and strengthens partisan allegiances. As stability increases, voters may rightly conclude that there is less at stake in the election, so their general discontent begins to outweigh the imperative for one political party or another. Thus, in previous elections that were driven by a strong dynamic of government and opposition, the choice for voters was simple. Moreover, the large number of voters who were frustrated by political life or angry at the political class could find their way to the opposition relatively easily. This was particularly true in 2012.

This year, however, is different. Both the GD and UNM are unequivocally part of the political class, the same political class that many Georgians feel has failed them in recent years. Neither party can pick up voters simply by being the alternative to the other, nor can they make progress by simply offering platitudinal statements about creating jobs or improving the economy. Additionally, several other parties such as the Free Democrats (FD) and the Republicans are part of that political class as well. Those parties that are more outside that class have also not generated sufficient excitement or energy to win substantial numbers of undecided voters.

Ironically, Georgia’s transition to what looks like a more stable and recognizable multi-party system has contributed to, at least on the surface, greater disillusionment with political processes. It is noteworthy that in 2016, the top two finishers in the campaign are very likely to be the same parties that finished in the top two in 2012. This is new in Georgia and is evidence of the strengthening of Georgia’s political party system. However, it appears that both major parties have enough support to create what looks a lot like a two party system, but not enough support to bring in voters who are not already strong supporters of their parties.

Georgia may be transitioning from a party system where important new parties appear every election cycle to one where the same parties compete against each other with regularity. The latter tends to produce more consolidated democracies as voters can choose between familiar political forces and are more able to hold political parties accountable. This may be happening in Georgia, but the critical caveat is that neither party is very popular. This contributes to the large number of undecided voters, but an equally relevant contributing factor is that the Georgian electorate may be losing faith in the notion that some larger than life figure, like Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012 or Mikheil Saakshvili for much of the decade before that, can be their political savior. The failure of other familiar political faces like Irakli Alasania and the Free Democrats or newer political figures like Paata Burchaladze and his Georgia Development Foundation Party, to move to the top of the polls is further evidence of this.

Over the next few months as the election approaches it is likely that the number of undecided voters will decline, but many voters will remain unpersuaded by all of the political parties. Some voters who are still undecided in the days leading up to an election will make up their minds at the last minute, but many more simply will not vote.

A low turnout election will have several different impacts on politics in Georgia. First, parties will win a much higher proportion of votes than current polling suggestions. For example, according to the NDI poll, among all voters the GD has a slight lead of 19-15 percent over the UNM. However, fully 57 percent of the respondents were either undecided, supported no party or refused to answer. Thus among the 43 percent who are decided, the GD lead is 44-35 percent. Of course, some of those undecided voters will vote, but the point should be clear. Lower vote turnout will increase the overall proportion of votes for the leading parties and increase the margins between these parties from what the polls currently suggest.

The second, and more significant, impact of low turnout is that the disconnection between the electorate and political institutions could become greater. It is very possible that, following a low turnout election, politics will continue to be seen by most Georgians as something that involves a few people in the capital, but in which they have little interest or stake. This is not a good foundation on which to consolidate democracy. Regardless of who wins the election, by what margin or what the eventual ruling coalition looks like, if turnout is low, the new government will have to govern a population that has little faith in either the new government or the institutions of government.

The post-election government, however, will not be powerless in the face of voter discontent following a low turnout election. The new government can address this by working not just on governance, but on changing the relationship between the political class and the broader Georgian population. This will be a difficult task, but one of great importance to the future of democracy in Georgia. Creating programs that genuinely seek the input of ordinary citizens, requiring MPs to spend time in their districts discussing issues with voters, of if they are from the party list finding other ways to interact with citizens, promoting a politics where elected official and candidates spend more time listening to voters than talking at them, and otherwise breaking down the barriers between those who govern and those who are governed are all ways this relationship can be changed.

In Georgia’s recent past, these kinds of projects have been the bailiwick of democracy promotion organizations, but it is now time for Georgian political parties to do this on their own. Unfortunately, there is little time to do this well between now and the election, but there will be time after October. The parties that do this, rather than get pulled back into the older more comfortable habits of partisan bickering and broad unrealistic promises, will not only be helping Georgian democracy, but will also increase their own popularity and support.

It is likely that the large number of undecided voters will not upend this election. Some will not vote. Others will cast a protest vote of some kind and some will return to one of the major parties. In this respect Georgia will very likely get through this election smoothly, but failing to address the causes of this large number of undecided voters would be a mistake, because as long as more than half the voters are dissatisfied with the numerous party options, the possibility of a destabilizing political event will be present.

Lincoln Mitchell

04 August 2016 21:27