The October 1 by-elections to fill five seats in the Georgian parliament produced a convincing victory for the ruling National Movement party. Party leader and President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili openly declared these by-elections to be an indicator of the electorate’s confidence in his policies and did his best to secure victory for the ruling party’s nominees.
The by-elections were held in the single-mandate constituencies of Kobuleti, Batumi, and Shuakhevi (Ajaria), Tkibuli (western Georgian), and Tbilisi’s Isani district. Instead of focusing on the nominees’ accomplishments, the ruling party primarily emphasized the fact that they are supported by Saakashvili’s National Movement. In line with this strategy, the National Movement’s television ads stressed the achievements of Saakashvili’s government since the 2003 Rose Revolution and called for voters’ support to achieve further progress in the country. President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli also accompanied National Movement candidates to key campaign events. This strategy paid off.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), most of the 165,404 voters registered in these five constituencies voted for the National Movement candidates. They are: Bidzina Bregadze, a former deputy interior minister and a National Movement activist (Isani); Jemal Inaishvili, president of the Georgian Chamber of Commerce (Batumi); Koba Khabazi, former head of the Local Government and Regional Policy Coordination Office at the President’s Administration (Kobuleti); Elguja Makaridze, a former member of the President’s Council of Advisers (Shuakhevi); and Pavle Kublashvili, president Saakashvili’s parliamentary secretary. (Tkibuli).
Neither local nor international observers reported any serious violations during the vote. However, the opposition parties accused the authorities of inaccuracies in the voter lists, similar to the complaints on the eve of the November 2, 2003, parliamentary elections that led to the Rose Revolution. There have been reports that many voters could not find their names on the lists and were thus unable to cast a ballot.
The opposition also charged the authorities with bribing voters by various means, including free medicines and free doctors’ appointments. On October 3, David Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights group, alleged that the government had used state funds to finance the campaigns of its candidates (TV Rustavi-2, TV Imedi, October 3). Both the CEC and the winners dismissed the opposition charges as groundless. CEC chairman Gia Kavtaradze stated that formal complaints filed by the opposition parties were unlikely to affect the by-election results.
Some analysts argued that these five seats would not change the balance of power in the National Movement-dominated legislature. However, the vigorous campaigning by the National Movement and Saakashvili himself revealed that the ruling party believed it needed an overwhelming victory at the by-election to achieve three goals: to replace losses in the National Movement parliamentary faction after several parliamentarians defected; to demonstrate, particularly before the international community, that regardless of the recent polls showing the decreasing popularity of the ruling party, the Georgian electorate still favors Saakashvili’s policies; and to push the opposition out of active political work.
Commenting on the by-election results, Saakashvili admiringly underlined the “very encouraging” victory that “dashed hopes” of those pundits who had predicted the collapse of Saakashvili’s government last summer. He also feigned concern about the “catastrophic showing” of the opposition, which, according to Saakashvili, has clearly demonstrated its weakness. “It is hard to see how they had managed to lose in all five constituencies,” he added ironically (TV Rustavi-2, October 2).
The opposition parties, which doubted the impartiality of the CEC Central Electoral Commission because of it was packed with ruling party loyalists (see EDM, June 14), were also skeptical about the fairness of the ballot.
On September 17, the four opposition parties (Freedom, Conservative, Labor, and New Rights) conducted Georgia’s first primary elections to select the strongest candidates to stand against the National Movement-supported candidacies (see EDM, August 10). However, after the by-elections the opposition admitted that the primaries had their own shortcomings (Akhali Taoba, October 5).
When asked why they had participated in the by-elections if they were fully aware of their imminent defeat, the opposition parties argued that a boycott would not have any effect because of the current Election Code. Last year’s amendments to the Election Code dropped the provision requiring at least a one-third voter turnout to make parliamentary by-elections valid. As a result, now any candidate who secures one-third of the total votes cast during the polls will be the winner, regardless of voter turnout. Conservative MP Kakha Kukava commented that despite the loss, the opposition has created some discomfort for the ruling party, as indicated by Saakashvili’s personal involvement in campaigning.
Opposition party leaders plan to define a strategy for the future and plan to mobilize the masses for more political involvement. “Parties planning to build their policies only on news conferences will merely die,” Kukava said (Akhali Taoba, October 5). He scolded other opposition parties for passivity and refusing to join the anti-Saakashvili coalition. Jondi Bagaturia of the Labor Party argued that mass civil disobedience by the opposition forces would be the best strategy (Akhali Taoba, October 3). It remains to be seen whether the other opposition parties share this radical viewpoint, which could only complicate Georgia’s already-complex political situation.