Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: Opposition's Poor Election Showing Rings Alarm Bells

Many believe the failure to pose much of a challenge to the ruling party in local elections is bad for democracy.
By Diana Chachua
This is our reply to the sceptics and scandal-mongers,” declared Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili following the October 5 local government elections. “The entire world has watched Georgia today, and we have passed our democracy exam with flying colours.”

The Saakashvili-led ruling party United National Movement won a convincing victory in the poll, securing 66.5 per cent of the vote, with the opposition bloc of Republicans and Conservatives notching up just 12 per cent.

The opposition has called the ballot undemocratic, but many local observers have said that this was the fairest election since Georgia became independent - though they have expressed concern at the absence of serious political competition.

“You can say the outcome of the election was known beforehand - that is why there was no political struggle between the parties,” political analyst Gia Nodia told IWPR.

International and local observers said the election was not without its flaws, mainly inaccurate voting lists. However, the latter, the say, did not really affect the outcome of the poll.

Tamar Zhvania, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Fair Elections, described the poll result as credible, despite the many procedural violations.

Nonetheless, those who turned out for the vote only to find that they were not registered to cast a ballot felt cheated.

“I was not on the lists,” pensioner Otar Tavartkiladze told IWPR as he left a polling station. “My wife was, but I was not. Saakashvili will win without my help, but it’s a pity I won’t take part.”

Nani Loria, another citizen denied a vote, was furious with polling station staff. “Do you call this democracy? You found out in advance who will vote for whom and simply struck opposition voters off the list,” she yelled.

“I’m not on the list, but my mother-in-law, who died as far back as the Khruschev era, is there. Maybe, you should deliver the ballot-box to the next world, as she is unlikely to show up here.”

The opposition have sought to exploit concerns over the reported irregularities to push for the election results to be annulled.

“Saakashvili has proved once again that he is a pathological, bloody dictator, whose leadership [depends] solely on unquestioning support from President Bush,” said Shalva Natelashvili, of the Labour Party. “We call on the governments of democratic states and international organisations not to recognise these rigged elections. We demand that the results of the poll be revoked.”

Saakashvili, however, has paid little heed to opposition claims, preferring to see the ballot as an endorsement of current government policy.

“The whole world has watched Georgia during these days, wondering whether the people would support our policy, and they saw what the Georgian people’s position is,” said the president, hinting at Tbilisi’s decision to arrest four Russian officers on espionage charges – a move that led to spiralling Georgian-Russian tensions.

The Georgian president took particular pride in the unprecedented turnout in the Kodori Gorge, recently renamed Upper Abkhazia - the only part of the rebel Abkhazia region under the Georgian authorities’ control.

Analysts say the high level of electoral support for Saakashvili will strengthen his hand in the standoff with Moscow. Indeed, some suggest that the crisis may have helped him in the election.

“It’s obvious that the situation with Russia played into the authorities’ hands,” said the leader of the Republican Party David Usupashvili. “There’s no doubt that Russia, to put it mildly, behaved incorrectly towards Georgia – we back the authorities wholeheartedly on that score.”

But Nodia is sure Saakashvili’s party would have won at the polls even without the furore over the Russian spies - although probably not by such a convincing margin.

Some observers believe the landslide nature of the president’s electoral success is not good for democracy. “It’s very bad that the ruling party has no more opponents,” said Radio Liberty commentator Ia Antadze, who urged the opposition to start preparing now for the 2008 parliamentary election.

Saakashvili expressed his regret over the opposition’s dismal poll performance. Meeting members of his party, he said he was “not happy about the catastrophic defeat of the opposition at all. There’s no disgrace greater than that.”

Diana Chachua is a correspondent with the newspaper 24 Saati. Nana Kurashvili works for the TV company Imedi.

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