Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 160

Georgia will hold elections for local governments in early December, Giorgi Arveladze, head of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, announced on August 7. Arveladze mentioned two reasons for choosing that month: to allow incumbent governments time to complete projects and to allow the new governments to begin work in the new fiscal year (Civil Georgia, TV Rustavi-2, August 7). Tbilisi is expected to specify the election date later.

The ruling National Movement Party, which has been cautious about setting the election date (see EDM, June 14), now appears confident of victory. This year began with political setbacks from a series of negative events, including falling living standards and public protests over high-profile murders, controversial reforms, abuses of power, and police violence (see EDM, February 15, March 31, April 12, May 24).

The government’s declining popularity naturally roused the major opposition groups in recent months. The opposition parties have demonstrated a willingness to set aside ideological issues, political differences, and personal disagreements for the sake of beating the ruling party in the local elections. On July 12, seven opposition parties — New Rights, Republican, Conservative, Industrialist, Labor, Freedom, and People’s Forum — discussed a joint election strategy (Civil Georgia, July 12), prompting premature media speculation about a possible grand coalition against the National Movement and its considerable electoral resources.

However, narrow partisan-political considerations and personal ambitions seem to outweigh the shared opinions regarding the government’s mistakes. In August, the Labor and Freedom parties backed out of the consultations and the People’s Forum may follow them. Differences of opinion regarding the government’s strategy in Kodori Gorge (see EDM, July 24) undermined their already fragile unity. On August 6, only five opposition parties — Republican, Conservative, New Rights, Industrialists, and People’s Forum — held consultations about participating in the local elections and fielding a joint candidate to run for mayor of Tbilisi. The consultation, however, has not led to any concrete arrangements (TV Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, August 6).

Meanwhile, the authorities have not been sitting on their hands. Apart from tailoring the election code to their interests, as some pundits argue, they have launched a popular jobs program that includes summer student internships in Tbilisi and other major cities (see EDM, August 9). Additionally, the government managed to gain maximum political mileage from the victory in Kodori (see EDM, August 1) and is trying to drive the opposition into a corner for its complaints about excessive force in Kodori. Officials labeled some of the opposition leaders as “parricides” who “have turned away from the country’s national interests” (TV Rustavi-2, July 27, 31).

The National Movement is unofficially campaigning ahead of the elections by deploying the government’s administrative resources. For example, the opposition has complained that Gigi Ugulava, the incumbent mayor of Tbilisi and the National Movement’s candidate to keep this post, has been proactively campaigning. For the last six weeks government-sponsored ads showing Ugulava opening various facilities in Tbilisi and describing him and the national Movement as initiators of these wonderful deeds have saturated Georgian television programming. The joint candidate for Tbilisi mayor from the opposition parties, if one is selected, will face an uphill battle, and independent candidates will lag even further behind. The election code, as amended in June, allows the president to announce the exact date of election just 40 days in advance, which gives opposition candidates little time to mount a full-scale campaign.

At present the Conservative, Republican, New Rights, and Industrialists parties, which are represented in the parliament, appear willing to participate in the local elections, which is good news for the government, because a total boycott would reduce the legitimacy of the vote.

The newly created opposition party “Georgia’s Way,” led by ex-foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, has already been called a “Trojan Horse” within the opposition camp for continuing to remain aloof from the rest of the opposition and frequent agreements with the government. Zourabichvili said her party would definitely participate in the elections and she might run for Tbilisi mayor herself.

Although the opposition parties with more radical agendas, such as Labor, Freedom, and the People’s Forum, are inclined to boycott the elections, analysts argue that they, especially the Labor Party with its established electorate, would participate independently (Resonansi, August 14). Recently the Labor Party has accused the government of printing 100,000 false ID cards in order to rig the votes to facilitate a National Movement victory at the elections in Tbilisi (GHN, August 12).

Now that the opposition has dropped its plan to boycott the elections, the political situation has changed in favor of the government. So far, most analysts agree that the opposition stands little chance of winning the local elections. Nevertheless, the opposition hopes for a strong showing and claims that polls indicate equal chances for the opposition and the ruling party. “We have no other alternative than taking part in the elections,” said parliamentarian Constantine Guntsadze (New Rights). Talks among the opposition parties will resume in September, and they are likely to nominate a joint candidate for the Tbilisi mayor’s race if they can agree on coalition (Resonansi, August 14, 15).