The October 2012 elections were not only noteworthy for their overall peacefulness, but also because they marked the first constitutional transfer of power in modern Georgian history. This has likely helped to moderate the usual winner-take-all pattern. But another reason is almost certainly that Georgian Dream's accession to power was accompanied by a strong, well-organized, and experienced opposition (including the country's president). Although the two parties seem more often at each others' throats than not, the practical effects of cohabitation have put the new government under a political microscope to a degree unprecedented in modern Georgian history. Sometimes the opposition will overreach, sacrificing national interests for the transient tactical edge, but this is hardly an uncommon feature among even more consolidated, Western democracies.
The ruling coalition, falling short by fourteen of the 100 seats it needs for a constitutional supermajority, has to work within the boundaries of an inherited system rather than crafting one to specification, as was pro forma in past years. Even during normal legislative procedures in which GD's simple majority is enough to push through bills, the opposition has highlighted shortcomings or provoked useful discussions resulting in stronger outcomes. For example, a GD bill to partially decriminalize entry into the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- though strongly opposed to by the UNM -- has been modified constructively in response to some of the operational critiques raised by the parliamentary opposition. And earlier this year, the warring sides were able to lay down their arms long enough to produce a pro-western, bipartisan resolution on foreign policy.
Cohabitation and governmental gridlock teach an incredibly important lesson about the vagaries of democracy. It's not always an efficient, straightforward process. But this can be a good thing. Although ineffective government is never a cause for celebration, untrammeled do-somethingism can be worse. Centralized, unchecked power may make big projects easier to start and finish. But an unchallenged executive also tends to overlook due diligence, often running roughshod over anyone unlucky enough to be in the way. This was exactly the type of perceived state impunity that helped push GD into power last October.
For those seeking the glamour of dramatic policy reforms or grandiose projects to celebrate national greatness, the day-to-day realities of governing in a modern democracy can seem a little boring. Georgia's popular government, with a president and a large and active parliamentary minority in the opposition, is possibly more accountable than any other in recent memory. This may mean an end to overly ambitious projects, like the construction of new cities from scratch, but it could result in more democratic participation and pragmatism, such as restarting trade with Russia.
As Georgians prepare to head back to the polls for the October 2013 presidential election, the West should, above all, respect the democratic will of the Georgian people. But an election that results in continued divided government would not necessarily be a bad outcome. Cohabitation or not, Georgia's long-term democratic and Euro-Atlantic prospects will be helped by an active and constructive opposition, no matter who is in power. At the same time, the often legitimate political differences between political factions should be kept within the family rather than being needlessly elevated into issues of international concern.
The idea that democratic government isn't just about swapping one king for another needs to take firm root within Georgian political consciousness. Cohabitation has played a part in that process. An organized and relevant opposition, speaking for a significant portion of the population, can also fill this role. If Georgia is to shed its longtime inclination towards "pluralistic feudalism" -- in which personalities, rather than policies or ideas, drive the political agenda -- the maintenance of a viable opposition will be key. Few would argue that cohabitation has resulted in an ideal arrangement, but it may have helped drag Georgian politics into a new era.