Georgia is holding country-wide local elections on May 30. International and local observers regard these elections as a critical test for Georgia, on four counts.
This is the first electoral contest in the country since the August 2008 Russian invasion; and since 1990, this is the first election in which a Georgian political force (the “National Council”) has made an overt pact with Moscow. Thus, the elections will measure the impact of these developments on Georgia’s internal politics.
Second, the radical extra-parliamentary opposition (irrespective of attitudes toward Russia) regards these local elections as a referendum on President Mikheil Saakashvili’s and the government’s performance. Declaring the elections to have been rigged in advance, radical groups prepare for post-election street protests, hoping to topple the government or force the holding of snap presidential elections (as was the case in November 2007-January 2008).
Third, Western election observers and other international organizations regard these elections as yet another “test” of the Georgian authorities’ democratic maturity. As society at large, or the radical opposition groups, are impervious to such international testing, it remains for the authorities to undergo it, with assessments tending to discount the local societal context. For their part, the authorities are literally scrambling to address any criticisms from Western election observers.
Fourth—and most significantly for the country’s political direction—the mayoral election in Tbilisi is the pivotal event of these elections. The city’s mayor is elected by direct popular vote for the first time in this election (the mayor was elected by the City Council until now, and was an appointive office prior to that). Control of the capital city’s mayoralty is regarded as a springboard for top national office, thus a major prize to be won ahead of the 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections.
Under the electoral law, a mayoral candidate needs 30 percent plus one of the votes cast in the first round in order to win the election outright. A second round is held if two candidates garner at least 30 percent each in the first round (EDM, May 15, 18).
Pre-election opinion surveys have deflated all expectations of a close outcome that would enable the radicals to claim fraud and rise against the government.
A survey conducted for the US National Democratic Institute (NDI, released on May 11), has found that 53 percent of Georgian voters think the country is moving in the right direction, with 20 percent believing the contrary. President Saakashvili’s performance is rated positively or very positively by 51 percent, and negatively or very negatively by 11 percent of Georgian voters country-wide.
The NDI survey shows the opposition’s performance rating at only 12 percent positive or very positive, and 35 percent negative of very negative, among Georgian voters on a country-wide basis. In the Tbilisi mayoral campaign, incumbent Gigi Ugulava (a member of Saakashvili’s inner circle) led with 57 percent, against his main opponent Irakli Alasania (a former high-ranking diplomat, currently in the moderate non-parliamentary opposition) 7 percent, in the NDI survey (Georgian Journal, May 27 – June 2).
A survey of Tbilisi’s voters, released by the French CSA opinion-polling organization on May 19, shows the governing United National Movement (UNM) with 44 percent, the Christian-Democrat Party (law-abiding parliamentary opposition) with 23 percent, the Alliance for Georgia (backing Alasania) with 16 percent, and the Russia-oriented National Council with 7 percent of voter support. According to the same survey, voter support for mayoral candidates stands at 57 percent for Ugulava, 14 percent for Alasania, 11 percent for Christian-Democrat candidate Gia Chanturia (former head of the national oil company), and 6 percent for National Council candidate (and a recent visitor to Moscow) Zviad Dzidziguri.
At least as significant as the parties’ and leaders’ rankings is the CSA poll finding, which states that 64 percent of Tbilisi voters anticipate the elections to be held freely and fairly (Rustavi-2 TV, May 19; Jamestown Foundation Blog, May 24). A survey conducted in March for the US International Republican Institute (IRI) pointed to similar trends as the NDI and CSA polls.
All these findings suggest, first, that Russia’s 2008 invasion, seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the impact of the world economic crisis, have not damaged the ratings of the president and government by Georgian voters. This solid rating is mainly based on socio-economic performance and delivery on promises. Second, the findings show a rise in the authorities’ rating in Tbilisi, a city that used to be the opposition’s turf (albeit of a deeply factionalized opposition). Saakashvili had received 34 percent of the Tbilisi vote in the 2008 presidential election, and the governing UNM only 41 percent in the same year’s parliamentary elections. The UNM’s and Ugulava’s current, pre-election ratings are considerably higher (see above). And thirdly, the “National Council” remains a peripheral group despite, or perhaps also because of its pact with Moscow.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>