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Mayoral Fight Unleashed in Tbilisi

Georgian politicians start local election campaign seven months early.
By Anna Kandelaki
Georgia is still seven months away from its local elections, but the opposition and the government are already locked into campaigning.

After a year that has seen massive opposition protests and popular anger against President Mikhail Saakashvili, experts say the early campaign is a sign of the significance the politicians are giving to the local posts – particularly that of mayor of Tbilisi.

They say the opposition is planning new tactics following its failure this spring to force Saakashvili’s resignation by paralysing the capital with round-the-clock demonstrations. The government’s announcement of the elections has taken the initiative from radical factions who were protesting outside parliament.

“Although many opposition factions think that in the current legal and media climate it is impossible to hold real elections, you must recognise that there is no alternative. Those opposition factions ready for negotiations will have more chance of success than the radicals. They can offer a new strategy to the public,” said Ia Antadze, a political commentator from Radio Liberty.

Saakashvili announced in the summer that Tbilisi elections will be held in May, the first time the capital will have had a directly elected head.

The Alliance for Georgia coalition, which unites a number of opposition groups, has already said it is keen to take part, although the legal amendments required for the election have yet to be passed. The coalition’s leader, Irakli Alasania, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has said he will stand for mayor himself.

If he does win, then the post of speaker of the Tbilisi local parliament, the Sakrebulo, will be held by Sozar Subari, the former national human rights champion who left his post in August and joined the opposition to the president.

Levan Ganchiladze, who stood against Saakashvili in the last presidential elections, has also suggested he could stand, but only if he has support from a wide spectrum of opinion.

“I will take part in the mayoral elections only if there is a joint decision by the opposition, popular support and a guarantee that we can take Tbilisi from Saakashvili,” he said.

Although local elections will take place all over Georgia, politicians are currently focusing mainly on the capital, since it is the centre of power in the country.

“The political processes in Tbilisi, the mayor and the Sakrebulo, are more influential than all the other local government organs in the country put together. We need the post of mayor of Tbilisi as a tribune for intensifying the fight,” David Gamkrelidze, one of the leaders of the Alliance for Georgia, told IWPR.

It is not clear, however, how the opposition would choose a single candidate, with suggestions of primaries on the American model having failed to reach universal acceptance. Such a system has the support of the Conservative Party’s head, Zviad Dzidziguri, who says the previous failure of the opposition to unite behind one figure has been disastrous.

“We did not show sufficient unity to replace the Saakashvili regime and gain new elections. We think that a primary’s results could provide a single opposition leader. This would allow us to fight more effectively,” he said.

But his opposition colleagues were not keen on the idea.

“Why do we need primaries? I think recent events have shown once again that the main opposition force in the country is the Labour Party, and the opposition’s leader is its chairman Shalva Natelashvili,” said Giorgi Gugava, a representative of the Labour Party, one of the bewildering number of groups that oppose Saakashvili.

The ruling National Movement party has not announced its candidate for the mayoral post yet, though it appears likely that current mayor Gigi Ugalava will seek to keep his place.

The opposition is not the only political force to increase its activities. Officials have been regularly shown on the main television channels – which are all under government influence or control – visiting remote regions and meeting with local people.

The visits are part of a so-called Dialogue with the People programme created by Saakashvili, and closely resemble the kinds of trips that are a major feature of the pre-election campaigning – although officials deny there is anything unusual about them.

“The Dialogue with the People aims to explain to the people what we have done and to listen to their opinion on the next steps to take. This dialogue does not mean we are preparing for elections,” said Giorgi Gabashvili, chairman of the parliamentary committee for education, science and culture.

But Georgia’s weary voters are not impressed, and look on all the politicians’ activities with deep cynicism.

“Both the authorities and the opposition have no connection to ordinary people. They only remember us before elections, and start to give out help, and so on. I just wish these elections were more frequent,” said Nugzar Khizaanishvili, a 51-year-old farmer from Gurjaani.

Anna Kandelaki is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.

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