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Georgian Opposition Faces Uphill Election Struggle

While the ruling party focuses on pledges to make better, its opponents are failing to make headway, in part because of what they see as unfair changes to the voting system.
By Tamar Kadagidze
The shop windows have barely been stripped of the red posters bearing portraits of Mikheil Saakashvili, left over from the January presidential ballot, when Georgia once again finds itself immersed in election politics.

The May 21 parliamentary vote is being seen by some Georgian analysts, as well as international experts, as no less significant than the early election which Saakashvili called – and duly won – following mass protests in November.

The Central Election Committee has finalised the list of parties that have applied to take part, and it is now clear that three election blocs and nine individual parties will be competing for the 150 seats in parliament.

The major contenders are Saakashvili’s United National Movement, UNM, which dominates the current legislature, and its main rival, the eight-member Opposition-National Council-New Rights bloc.

The November protests, and especially the violence with which police dispersed them, rocked the usually solid position of the UNM, with some of its supporters melting away in disappoint at what had happened. Now the party is working hard to show it is back on its feet, with unpopular politicians removed and prominent businessmen, athletes and cultural figures recruited to front the campaign.

As in the presidential election campaign, the UNM strategy is to avoid attacking political opponents and to focus instead on social and economic improvements. The movement’s main election promise is to eradicate poverty and unemployment in Georgia.

If the Saakashvili camp has a target in this election campaign, it is an external one – Russia. The country is seen as supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and recent initiatives coming out of Moscow regarding both separatist territories, as well as the clear Russian hostility to Georgia’s efforts to move closer to NATO membership, have caused alarm within Georgia. The president’s foreign policy largely resonates with public opinion.

The United Opposition bloc was formed not long before the presidential election, yet its candidate Levan Gachechiladze still managed to score over 30 per cent of the vote. That respectable showing suggests the grouping has a reasonable chance of doing well in the May election.

At the same time, a number of developments since January have made the opposition’s chances look less rosy. For a start, it is less united than it was then, having lost one of its members, the Republican Party, which is less confrontational towards the Saakashvili administration than other bloc members and has decided to run on its own.

This defection appears to have lowered the United Opposition’s standing with potential supporters.

As well as attacking the president, opposition groups have also taken to sniping at one another – for example accusing each other of selling out to the government. This contrasts with the solidarity they displayed in the run-up to the January polls.

“Campaigning by Georgia’s political parties is built upon criticising the government, and not around political projects or concepts,” said political observer Ramaz Sakvarelidze. “With this kind of background, the opposition parties have no other choice but to accuse one another of making alliances with the government.”

Sakvarelidze believes the opposition has made “many mistakes” since January, and has not adopted the right tactics to succeed in the upcoming election.

Another area of concern for the opposition is the way the election will work. On March 12, the UNM-led parliament passed a change to the electoral code abolishing a form of proportional representation based on large constituencies that was introduced in 2005, and reinstating the old rules where half of the 150 seats filled by the first-past-the-post system in 75 constituencies, and the rest elected proportionally.

Arguing that this change would tilt the election in favour of the UNM, the Georgian opposition staged an 18-day hunger strike in protest. That action ended, however, without any concessions being made by the authorities.

Nevertheless, opposition leaders remain in belligerent mood. At one rally, politician Koba Davitashvili told supporters, “Saakashvili has declared war on us, and we accept his challenge. If the results of the May 21 parliamentary election are falsified in the same manner as the January 5 presidential ballot, we will lead the people in an uprising… and this is not going to be another Velvet Revolution.”

Concerns about the conduct of this election have also been voiced by external observers. Following a fact-finding visit to Georgia in March, a team from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said there had been “little or no improvement” in the general political environment since the January polls.

“The political climate is still dominated by a lack of trust and absence of constructive dialogue between the authorities and the opposition,” said a report compiled by the team. “In an unwelcome development, the debate has become highly personalised.”

Saakishvili has promised that the election will be free and free, telling foreign diplomats he would act as “personal guarantor” to ensure this happened.

Archil Gegeshidze, spokesman for the Foundation for Strategic and International Research, said it was important that the election process should be irreproachable, at a time when Georgia had a window of opportunity to move closer to NATO.

Another analyst, Soso Tsiskarishvili, agreed that the current environment was “not conducive to the conduct of normal democratic elections”.

“Georgia is not following the recommendations made by international observers after the presidential election,” he alleged. “I believe the ruling party is going to win, given the current election legislation, as well the fact that the Imedi TV company Imedi is still not functioning and the [rest of the] media are under pressure,” he said.

Tsiskarishvili predicts that even if the election is seen to be unfair, the United States government – a major ally of Saakashvili – will be reluctant to voice criticism

“We are in a very difficult position – Georgia and its elections constitute [US] Republican Party project. On the eve of the US presidential election, the Republicans are not going to publicise the fact that this project has failed,” he said.

Tamar Kadagidze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.

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