Georgia: Ruling Party Routed in Polls

Parties loyal to President Shevardnadze were humiliated in Georgia's local elections, amid scenes of chaos and claims of vote-rigging.

Georgia: Ruling Party Routed in Polls

Parties loyal to President Shevardnadze were humiliated in Georgia's local elections, amid scenes of chaos and claims of vote-rigging.

In an ominous sign for President Eduard Shevardnadze, his party, the Citizens Union of Georgia, was humbled in local elections on June 2.

The pro-presidential party, one half of what used to be the governing party in the country, failed even to muster the four per cent of the vote it needed to be represented in the city council in the capital Tbilisi. The population gave its support instead to opposition candidates, in particular to the left-leaning Labour Party and a party formed by popular former justice minister Mikhail Saakashvili.

Most of the city councils, known as "sakrebulos", are not as powerful as governors or mayors, appointed by the president. But the election had wider significance as the first test of a new political line-up in Georgia, caused by a string of resignations and the collapse of the former ruling party last year.

Initial results suggested that the opposition is on course for success in next year's parliamentary elections and perhaps the presidential vote, due in 2005, when Shevardnadze is bound by the constitution to step down.

The president, speaking in his weekly radio interview, said he accepted the results and was ready to work with the winning parties "provided they act according to the constitution".

Ironically, the only crumb of comfort for the government was that the polls were so badly organised that doubt was cast on their validity by all sides. Saakashvili was amongst those calling for a re-count of votes for the 49-seat Tbilisi city council.

Local and international observers recorded violations and falsifications on a massive scale. A delegation of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe said it was "shocked by the deplorable state of the voters' lists". "The CLRAE delegation is disappointed that the democratic process in Georgia has so far failed to match the people's aspirations," said Louis Roppe, leader of the observer delegation. "The people of Georgia deserve better."

Many voters expended considerable time and effort going between polling stations, looking for lists, where they might be registered. More than a third of the Tbilisi electorate did not even receive an invitation to vote.

"Neither my neighbours nor I received a voting card," said Natela Nebieridze, who turned up at Polling Station No 12. "I am registered in Saburtalo and I live with my husband on Gogebashvili Street. I went to vote at the polling station on Gogebashvili, but I wasn't there either. Whoever I turn to throws up their hands. What am I to do, where can I vote? I decided that I won't leave until I do!"

"Yesterday I found a whole bundle of voting cards thrown onto the landing of my staircase by someone," complained Leila Gvatua, at Polling Station No 115. "I looked and gasped! They were cards for voters in the three neighbouring buildings and half of them were in the names of people who died long ago."

Observers also noted many cases in which electoral officials and policemen put pressure on voters. Many ballots were put into boxes, without the stamps or signatures of voting officials.

The election was declared invalid in three towns: Rustavi, Zugdidi and Khashuri. In Rustavi, around 40 armed men stopped and robbed a vehicle full of ballots on the edge of town. The vote will be held again there on June 9. In Zugdidi, gangs smashed ballot boxes and scattered the ballots in 18 of the 31 polling stations.

In Tbilisi, two parties scored well: the Labour Party led by Shalva Natelashvili and Mikhail Saakashvili's National Movement-Democratic Front, which received 25.97 per cent and 24.23 per cent of the vote respectively. Another former ally of Shevardnadze, former speaker of parliament Zurab Zhvania, won only a modest 7.27 per cent of the vote for his new party.

The success of Labour Party came from a campaign aimed at changing the government's social policies and improving the lot of the most deprived members of society, such as pensioners, doctors and teachers. Paradoxically, it may have been helped by the phenomenon of second-placed Saakashvili.

The former justice minister resigned from government last year, accusing the president and his team of corruption. His dynamic populism soon won him widespread support. But, it may be that Saakashvili, by drawing the attention of the electorate to social issues, made people notice that the Labour Party had a more consistent record on these questions than did a former member of the government.

Despite his success, Saakashvili called for the polls to be re-run, due to the mass irregularities. However, the Central Electoral Commission resisted the calls.

Political scientist Ramaz Sakvaredlidze said it was a positive development that both left- and right-wing opposition parties would be represented in the new city council. But he said there was a danger of a tilt to the left, which bases its appeal on a rejection of the existing state order.

None of the parties in the elections presented a clear programme, contenting themselves with attacks on the governing regime.

Much depends on the course taken by Saakashvili's National Movement, said Sakvarelidze. If he chooses a path of cooperation - not only with the Labour Party but also with other parties in the council - and uses legal methods, then its youthful leadership could have a positive impact on Georgia.

Keti Bochorishvili is Tbilisi correspondent for the BBC Caucasus and Central Asia Service.

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