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Georgia: Saakashvili Poll Landslide

Election hands Saakashvili control and leaves Ajarian leader out in the cold.
By Margarita Akhvlediani

Georgia's parliamentary elections have dramatically concentrated power in the hands of President Mikheil Saakashvili and his supporters.


The results have also paved the way for a new confrontation between Saakashvili and Aslan Abashidze, the leader of the autonomous republic of Ajaria, whose Revival party was not awarded enough votes to gain entry into parliament.


With all but a handful of votes counted, the National Movement-Democrats bloc had 67 per cent of the vote. Only one opposition grouping – the coalition of the Industrialists party and the New Rights Party – passed the seven-per cent barrier giving it a share of the 150 seats being awarded under proportional representation.


The National Movement Democrats would get 135 seats, the Industrialists-New Rights just 15.


The remaining 85 seats from single-seat constituencies are held by a mixture of pro-Saakashvili deputies, independents and opposition figures. They are not expected to present a serious threat to the ruling coalition.


The failure of Revival left Abashidize without a voice in the national parliament, despite the fact that within Ajaria his party gathered a majority – 52 per cent to about 40 per cent for Saakashvili’s party, according to preliminary figures.


Other big losers included once healthy opposition parties, such as Labour, which won only 5.8 per cent, according to the latest figures.


The European Union representative to the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, expressed concern about the one-sided result, saying it was hard to imagine there being no opposition representatives, and in particular from Revival, at the national level.


The election was a partial rerun of the November poll that was marred by widespread fraud, sparking the “rose revolution” led by Saakashvili and leading to the overthrow of then president Eduard Shevardnadze. The proportional representation results were subsequently annulled, necessitating a repeat vote, while the single-mandate results were allowed to stand.


This time, the International Election Observer Mission praised the conduct of the election. Despite serious violations in Ajaria and concerns over fairness, particularly concerning the unusually high parliamentary barrier of seven per cent, the authorities “demonstrated commendable progress”, a statement said. They had “seized the opportunity … to further bring Georgia’s election process in closer alignment with European standards”.


However, the landslide by Saakashvili’s National Movement-Democrats stripped parliament of serious opposition, in stark contrast to November when six parties crossed the seven-percent cut-off point. Pro-Saakashvili deputies will be only just short of the two-thirds majority needed to approve constitutional changes.


Although polling passed peacefully in Ajaria, the aftermath appears to put the victorious Saakashvili and increasingly isolated Abashidze on a new collision course.


Saakashvili, who has made strengthening central control a priority, repeated his demand for Abashidize’s paramilitary supporters to disarm, calling them “bandits”. He threatened “a big battle” and said he had already submitted a proposal to parliament for the abolition of Ajaria’s security ministry.


Abashidze, meanwhile, said his party had been cheated and suggested a referendum in Ajaria to see where the population’s support lay. Plans were also being made for a protest march to Tbilisi.


Polling stations in Ajaria were frequently the scene of tense disputes between rival election officials, and residents said they felt they had been caught in the middle.


“They are forcing us to choose between the president and the leader of our (region), but in reality we do not have to make that choice,” said Tengiz Japaridze in Adlia, a village in the Khelbachaursky district. “People support the idea of the new president, Saakashvili, but they still value their leader Aslan Abashidze. Nothing is stopping each of them from working for the general good of the country.”


Political analyst Avto Jorbenadze said that if Abashidze did hold a referendum, he would ensure that the results went his way, “Given the series of arrests, the beatings of opposition members and the harsh pressure on the local media over the last few months, the results of the referendum promise to be no less unanimous than the election results.”


The power struggle between Saakashvili and Abashidze was at its most tense in mid-March, when armed supporters of the Ajarian leader prevented Saakashvili’s motorcade from entering the autonomous province.


An infuriated president ordered the blockade of all transport into Ajaria, including the lucrative Black Sea port, and, after forcing Abashidze to climb down, finally travelled to the capital Batumi.


But the fact that elections were held under the scrutiny of international observers in Ajaria – and the failure of Revival to enter parliament – is a major boost for Saakashvili, Jorbenadze said.


By avoiding more drastic measures in March, he took “a tactical step back”. Now, he has “suddenly taken two steps forward” and “wiped his competitor from the political field”.


Margarita Akhvlediani is IWPR’s Caucasus coordinator.


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