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Is Georgia Set to Become One-Party State?

Georgia may find itself being governed by one all-powerful political party, after forthcoming ballot.
By Revaz Sakevarishvili

President Mikhail Saakashvili’s supporters look set to win overwhelming control of parliament in elections at the end of this month, capping a process that critics say risks turning Georgia into a one-party state.


Expectations of a crushing victory in the March 28 poll for the pro-government National Movement-Democrats bloc is so high that, so far, candidates are making almost no effort to campaign.


The sense of inevitability is a far cry from the tumultuous parliamentary elections last November that were declared fraudulent, sparking mass protests and, ultimately, the ouster of then president Eduard Shevardnadze in Saakashvili’s “Rose Revolution”.


The polls, heavily financed by the United States and the European Union, are being held to replace the annulled results of the November election. Up for grabs on March 28 are the 150 seats - selected by proportional representation - which were declared void in the last ballot. Most of the remaining 85 results for single-seat constituencies from last November will stand – giving this varied group of deputies the best chance of forming some kind of opposition.


The irony of the situation is that the culmination of a democratic revolution may leave Georgia being governed by one all-powerful political party, the government bloc recently formed from Saakashvili’s own party and the Burjanadze-Democrats of parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze. Other parties are either tainted by association with the Shevardnadze government, or are too small to put up a strong showing.


The electoral law requires parties to win at least seven per cent of the vote to enter parliament through proportional representation. Fearing this will exclude much of the fractured opposition, the Council of Europe has repeatedly called for the barrier to be lowered to just four or five per cent, warning that “pluralist democracy cannot function without a viable opposition”.


Tinatin Khitasheli, chairman of the Association of Young Lawyers, said the risk of an opposition-free parliament was real. “If there are fair elections in Georgia under the current condition of the seven per cent barrier, then, unfortunately, there will be only one party in parliament,” she told IWPR.


So far, the only meaningful political battles have been fought within the National Movement-Democrats bloc, leading to speculation that the alliance of three that led the “Rose Revolution” – Saakashvili, Burjanadze and the country’s new prime minister, Zurab Zhvania – could break up.


At issue has been the drawing up of the joint list of candidates who will represent the bloc on March 28.


A preliminary deal in which Saakashvili’s supporters would comprise 60 per cent of the list, with the remaining 40 per cent being divided equally between Burjanadze and Zhvania’s supporters, fell foul of personal rivalries.


After an unusually public row between the allies - barring Saakashvili, who was on a visit to Washington at the height of the dispute – Zhvania was widely seen to have emerged the winner, fuelling rumours that Burjanadze might break away altogether.


Giga Bokeria, a National Movement candidate, said Burjanadze had been trying to include too many Shevardnadze-era candidates on her list.


The fact that Saakashvili was abroad at a crucial time further weakened Burjanadze’s position. Following a meeting with the president on his return, she said,


“ Unfortunately the president was not in Georgia at the time the lists were being drawn up. Otherwise, he would have been able better to hear and consider my arguments.”


Burjanadze served for a month and a half as interim president after the November revolution but has been losing power ever since to her two allies.


Another crisis was narrowly averted when David Berdzenishvili, chairman of the Republican Party, which is in Saakashvili’s bloc, accused Zhvania of making deals with Ajaria, the autonomous Black Sea region run by local strongman Aslan Abashidze. Zhvania responded by calling for Berdzenishvili’s place to be moved down the party list, or even for him to be removed, and the row was defused only after the intervention of Saakashvili’s team.


In fact, Ajaria may well provide the only real upset in the parliamentary elections.


Traditionally, Abashidze’s Agordzineba (Revival) party has always swept the polls, amid allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation of the opposition.


The authorities there have attempted to crack down on an upsurge in opposition activity following the “Rose Revolution” and there have been violent clashes on the streets.


But this has not deterred the opposition and it is planning mass protests from March 15 up to election day. “We do not intend to bow before Abashidze’s police machine and we will push him out of power,” said Tamaz Diasamidze, one of the leaders of Our Ajaria.


Abashidze has blamed the government in Tbilisi, telling local television, “There are a lot of provocateurs who want to stir the waters and make use of this. I warn them all: the strictest measures will be used against them.” He has also threatened to pull his party out of the polls.


“Abashidze’s party always got over the barrier thanks to its use of government resources and in conditions of complete lack of monitoring,” said analyst Paata Zakareishvili.


And if in most of the country the results of the election are all too predictable, the aftermath, when Saakashvili’s bloc takes power, may not be. “I certainly can’t rule out that this conglomerate will fall apart, which, in it’s way, would not be a bad thing at all,” said David Losaberidze, an analyst at the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development.


“The question is how painless this will be and what the consequences will be.”


Revaz Sakevarishvili is a correspondent for Rustavi-2 television in Tbilisi


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