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Shevardnadze's Citizens Top Abashidze's Revivalists

The only real opposition to President Eduard Shevardnadze's Citizens Union of Georgia after last month's vote was Aslan Abashidze's Georgian Revival Party. Next year the two will face off again in the presidential poll.
By IWPR

Late results confirmed the early lead recorded by President Eduard Shevardnadze's political party in last week's parliamentary elections - marred by allegations of vote fraud - and reinforcing his determination to seek reelection in 2000.


In all, 20 political parties and 13 coalitions registered ahead of last week's elections, but only two - Shevardnadze's Citizens Union of Georgia and Aslan Abashidze's Georgian Revival Party - easily garnered the minimum seven percent of the vote required to get into the 235-seat parliament.


With all but a few disputed results in, 42 percent are estimated to have voted for Shevardnadze's bloc and 26 percent for Abashidze's. Only the opposition Labour Party of Georgia and the Industry Will Save Georgia bloc came close among the minor parties of beating the seven percent threshold.


"These elections can be called multi-party, but they weren't democratic," said Nugzar Ivanidze, the director of the US funded independent Fair Elections group. OSCE chief monitor Nikolai Vuchanov said election standards were "unsatisfactory" in Ajaria and two other regions of Georgia.


Ajaria, where election observers were driven out of polling stations by local residents, is the home base of Aslan Abashidze, Shevardnadze's main opposition. He was undeterred by allegations of vote rigging in the October 31 poll, and vowed to challenge Shevardnadze for the presidency in 2000.


At many polling stations, observers were barred from seeing ballot boxes, and at one polling station in Tbilisi, 15,000 ballots went missing a few hours before the vote.


Observers also criticised the election law passed in this summer as giving too much advantage to pro-government parties and allowing them to field more candidates.


The seven percent threshold was raised from the five percent set for the 1995 elections. The result was to concentrate support for the two main parties - the Labour Party of Georgia had supported the rise in the threshold, but failed to cross it on the day.


Overall, more than 70 percent voted for the two parties that crossed the seven percent line. The other 30 percent wasted their votes on the parties that failed to cross the threshold. Two thirds of this group voted for Labour and three other parties and the rest of the votes were scattered between the minor parties.


In contrast, in 1995 only 38 percent voted for the three parties that scored the minimum; a staggering 62 percent voted for parties that failed to beat the threshold and were thus left out of the parliament.


At the very least this year, the number of people whose votes were effectively wasted by their use on parties that failed the threshold has been substantially cut.


Another step has been the reinforcement of the opposition. For perhaps the first time Shevardnadze's bloc faced serious opposition in a vote - strong, earnest and uncompromising opposition, that points to the strengthening of the democratic environment.


But the fight was bitter and the charges hard. To Georgian Revival, Shevardnadze's Citizens were 'cosmopolitans' out to destroy the country and the cause of separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia, and 'slaves to Euro-Americanism'. In contrast, it said, the Revival cares about its homeland and promises timely payment of pensions and salaries.


The Citizens Union replies that the Revival is disunited and will break up political force and will break up once in Parliament. Revival was pro-Russian, corrupted and Mafia-dominated at its core, it said, and Abashidze is freely accused by Citizens spokesmen of fraud and corruption. On the other hand, they say, the Citizens are taking Georgia closer to Europe and further away from Russia.


For Georgians last week's vote was a choice between these two perceptions of electoral reality. The undisputed facts were the continuing worsening of the economic situation in Georgia, the widespread corruption, unpaid state sector salaries and pensions, and the gradual degradation of standards of living. Yet while only 23 percent voted for the Citizens Union in 1995, 42 percent expressed support for them this year. Few people predicted this outcome.


Defining the two's ideology is hard. The economic reforms brought in by the Citizens Union of Georgia are politically centre-right, but the party retains its membership of the Socialist International and spends a high proportion of the state budget on the social sectors. The Revival combines an eclectic grouping of traditional left and reformist right. Abashidze's comment was that he had "right and left feet, not right and left parties" under him.


The Citizens Union of Georgia was established in 1993 as a platform for Shevardnadze, and despite the presence of many old Communist party members in its ranks, soon gave space a group of young reformers led by Zurab Zhvania, elected speaker of the parliament in 1995, while other team members were elected chairmen of parliamentary committees. Zhvania and his allies, placed in charge of key committees, worked hard to overturn Soviet systems.


Georgians generally supported Zhvania's announcement when Georgia was admitted to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg - "I am Georgian, therefore, I am European".


But the main factor for the Citizens' success is Shevardnadze himself, travelling across Georgia in the weeks before the vote, promising that salaries would be paid and Georgia would be independent, prosperous and strong by 2005.


His rival Abashidze has not stepped out of Ajaria for seven years, and he concentrated his campaign on his home turf. He has again promised to contest Shevardnadze for the presidency in 2000, but without saying if he would campaign across the country.


Ia Antadze is a journalist on the Tbilisi newspaper Kavkasioni.