The month-long negotiations among Georgia’s opposition parties about fielding common candidates in the forthcoming parliamentary by-elections on October 1 have produced an agreement. On August 5, leaders of the Conservative, Labor, Tavisupleba (Freedom), and the New Right parties signed a memorandum about holding preliminary primaries to reveal the strongest single candidate. Each party will name a candidate for each race and the winner will represent the united opposition in the Batumi, Kobuleti, Shuakhevi (Ajaria), Tkibuli (western Georgia) and Isani (Tbilisi district) single-mandate constituencies. On August 8, the four-party coalition created a special election commission to manage the primaries.
New Right will have three candidates in the primaries, while the Conservatives will field four. Tavisupleba, chaired by Constantine Gamsakhurdia (son of Georgia’s late president Zviad Gamsakhurdia), will have two nominees. Gamsakhurdia junior did not attend the signing ceremony, and he sent an authorized representative to sign the memorandum in his absence. The Labor Party has not registered any candidates, which is surprising because Labor claims to have the biggest constituency among the opposition parties. “This is a very important moment, as this is the first instance of political parties holding primaries in Georgia,” Koba Davitashvili, the leader of the Conservative Party, declared at the signing ceremony. The Conservative Party had proposed the idea of holding primaries.
The memorandum signatories said the primaries would demonstrate “civilized cooperation between opponents” in response to “brazen steps taken by the authorities.” “Today we are opening a completely new page in Georgian politics. We are setting the precedent of winners being decided through civilized cooperation,” said New Right leader David Gamkrelidze.
The four parties, however, emphasized that the memorandum does not mean the creation of an electoral bloc, and they made clear the conditions of their cooperation, including solidarity in support of a fair and democratic electoral process and the freedom for each to “express different views on various issues.”
Although the four stated that the coalition “will remain open to the Georgian public and political forces, so that this format continues to expand in the future,” the opposition National-Democratic Party has been excluded from membership because of its low popularity. Davitashvili later explained that the coalition is open to the political forces that made a strong showing in the latest elections. “Our goal is not to make a collection of parties, but the creation of a truly strong political union able to win elections,” he added. The NDP expressed its regret over the coalition’s stance and said that allowing more opposition parties into the primaries would have helped in selecting the best candidates. The NDP is likely to run in the by-elections independently. Meanwhile, the opposition public movement “People’s Forum,” which opposed the idea of primaries, nevertheless announced it is open to “constructive cooperation” with the four-party coalition during the by-elections.
The moderately opposition Republican Party, a participant in the preliminary negotiations about the coalition, quit the coalition because it favored selecting the common candidates through opinion polls, instead of primaries. On August 5, Republican Party leader Davit Usupashvili told a news conference that his party would not participate in the by-elections because of artificial obstacles created by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), which has rejected the party’s registration. CEC chair Gia Kavtaradze, however, said the only reason for the rejection was that the Republican Party had not indicated in its application the exact authority assigned to the party’s representative in the CEC. He accused the Republican Party of not wanting to participate in the by-elections and inventing absurd reasons to justify its decision. The withdrawal of the Republican Party, which was able to install strong candidates in Ajaria and Tbilisi, has significantly weakened the opposition’s position.
The authorities responded to the new opposition front calmly and even ironically. “I do not think that they will create problems for our candidates,” said Mikheil Machavariani, deputy chair of parliament, in commenting on the opposition’s memorandum. He dismissed the allegations by the opposition parties about financing pro-governmental candidates’ campaigns through state funds. He said that it is actually the opposition who is using donations of “suspicious origin.” Meanwhile, some Georgian television stations showed Deputy Interior Minister Bidzina Bregadze, the ruling National Movement’s would-be candidate in the Isani district, meeting with the district’s prospective voters.
Despite proclaimed intentions to democratize the elections, what probably united the opposition parties was a common lack of electoral resources. The coalition of four must now withstand the government’s possible efforts to destroy the alliance through various backstage schemes.
Taking into account the powerful “administrative resources” behind government-supported candidates, the opposition can justly claim considerable success if its common candidates win by-elections in just two of the five constituencies.
(TV Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, Caucasus Press, GHN, Prime News, August 5; Caucasus Press, August 8; Resonance, Akhali Taoba, August 6)