Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 115

The upcoming local elections in Georgia, and the controversial electoral code guiding the vote, have already triggered confrontations between the government and the opposition and even within the opposition camp. Currently the parliament is scrutinizing amendments to the election code proposed by the ruling National Movement party. The amendments would allow officials, including the president, to campaign in favor of a specific political party, which would put opposition candidates at a disadvantage.

The opposition and most NGOs dismiss the election code as undemocratic. In June 2005 several opposition parties boycotted local elections to protest the new government-backed procedure to elect the Tbilisi City Council and mayor, trying to call attention to what they believe is the legalization of one-party system. The National Movement staffs the central and regional electoral commissions with loyal appointees to facilitate their success in local elections (see EDM, June 14, 2005).

Tbilisi, with one-third of Georgia’s registered voters, will be the major target for the political parties during the local elections. The post of mayor of Tbilisi is justly considered a potential political counterweight to the president, and the incumbent mayor Gigi Ugulava — who was appointed by President Mikheil Saakashvili — is reported to have a slim chance of retaining his position in a direct election. This circumstance partially explains why the ruling party has proposed the indirect route.

The mayor of Tbilisi must secure at least two-thirds of the total votes in the elected 37-member Tbilisi City Council. Twenty-five members of the Council will be elected through a first-past-the-post (“winner takes all”) system in Tbilisi’s ten constituencies. The remaining 12 seats will be distributed among parties that garner at least 4% of the vote in all ten capital constituencies. Five out of the ten electoral districts in Tbilisi will be three-mandate constituencies, while the other five will be two-mandate constituencies. The formula obviously favors the ruling party with its huge administrative resources.

On June 6 Saakashvili bluntly stated that he “is not going to set a date for the local elections for a long time.” This comment raised suspicions that Saakashvili’s team wants to either cancel the elections due in November 2006 or postpone them to a time more suitable for the government. Saakashvili explained that his move was due to the “huge work to be done” in the capital and he called on his opponents to “calm down and wait.” Some government critics suggested that the government has delayed assistance payments for poor families in order to distribute the aid on the eve of the November elections. Meanwhile, the opposition argues that the ruling party is trying to buy time to secure a victory for Ugulava.

In June leaders of four opposition parties — New Rights, Labor, Republican, and Conservative — shared their concerns about the upcoming local elections with U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft and ambassadors of other Western states. Pikria Chikhradze, a parliamentarian from the New Rights party, said that one reason for the meeting was that the opposition had exhausted its resources to improve the local election legislation. Shalva Natelashvili, Labor Party leader, said, “If the major political forces boycott the elections, Saakashvili’s presidency will be over and the opposition forces have already launched discussions over this proposal.”

The election-related activities have revealed a considerable variation among the opposition leaders. Their disagreement have long been an open secret despite their pledge to set aside differences to score an election victory. On May 28 Georgia’s former foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, leader of the newly created opposition party Georgia’s Way, announced her intention to run for mayor of Tbilisi. Polls suggest she is rapidly gaining ground. Although Zourabichvili fully shares the opposition’s concerns about the election code, she nevertheless rejected on June 2 an offer from the major opposition parties to become the opposition’s single candidate for mayor of Tbilisi.

“It was unimaginable for me to launch my political career by striking deals with parties that have failed to secure the public’s confidence…I say ‘No’ to these kinds of false alliance,” she declared. The opposition and some analysts assessed Zourabichvili’s move as “political suicide.” Zourabichvili’s uncooperativeness with the rest of the opposition prompted her deputy, Gia Tortladze, a parliamentarian from the opposition Democratic Front faction, to leave Georgia’s Way on June 9. Tortladze said Zourabichvili’s move plays into the hands of the ruling party. Symptomatically, Zourabichvili dismissed a possible boycott of the elections as defeatism.

The opposition parties have three options. One is the less probable boycott of the elections, second is forming a coalition and nominating a single candidate for mayor of Tbilisi, and third and even more remote is participating in the elections independently.

The 2006 local government election is anticipated to be the first serious test for Saakashvili’s government, which has been the darling of the Western community after the November 2003 Rose Revolution. In Georgia’s highly divided society, fair local elections could be a relief valve that prevents a political crisis and saves Georgia’s international image. But the Georgian political elite’s entrenched habit of faking elections dies hard and the fairness of the local elections seems doubtful.

(TV-Imedi, June 2, 9; TV-Rustavi-2, Civil Georgia, June 6; Resonansi, June 8, 12; 24 Saati, June 8; Kavkaz Press, Kviris Palitra, June 12)