Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 173

On October 5, Georgians will vote to fill 1,683 seats in 69 local municipal councils. Unlike the 2002 local elections, where voters directly elected the mayors except in Tbilisi and Poti, the October ballot will chose city councils, which will later elect mayors. In Tbilisi the mayor is to be elected among the council members. Analysts argue that this regulation and the first-past-the-post, “winner takes all” majoritarian system introduced in Tbilisi’s ten constituencies will help the ruling Unified National Movement Party to win the election.

But apart from filling the local councils and measuring the level of democracy in Georgia, the current round of elections is also anticipated to cause a certain regrouping within the opposition camp and to answer the question of whether the ruling party has genuine, viable opposition.

The dilemma of whether to participate or not in the local elections, which most of the opposition groups faced in August, has now been resolved. The would-be coalition of five opposition parties (see EDM, August 17) that was expected to nominate a single candidate for mayor of Tbilisi foundered in early September as a result of political perturbations within the opposition camp. Of the five possible parties, only the Republicans and Conservatives managed to form a pre-election bloc. The Labor Party, which had been inclined to boycott the elections, decided to participate at the last minute, explaining the decision by citing its leaders’ devotion to the party’s sizeable electorate. Meanwhile, on September 11 the opposition New Rights Party announced it would boycott the elections, despite initial plans to run. The boycott was reportedly the result of the party’s failure to persuade the influential tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili to run for Tbilisi mayor as a unified opposition candidate. Patarkatsishvili, who reportedly did not want to further poison his already strained relations with the government, explained that he did not want to fuel a political confrontation. Constantine Guntsadze, a member of parliament and a prominent New Rights activist, sharply criticized the decision to boycott. If Guntsadze quits the New Rights’ 10-member parliamentary faction, it will not have enough members to satisfy the parliamentary rules for factions.

The opposition party Tavisufleba (Freedom), the public-political movement “People’s Forum,” as well as other smaller opposition groups are planning to boycott the election, which they dismissed as a “farce” (TV-Imedi, September 15).

Therefore, the ruling National Movement party, the Labor Party, Georgia’s Way, Industrialists, the Party of National Ideology, and the Conservative-Republican bloc will contest the local elections. The most heated political struggle is expected for the Tbilisi mayor’s office, because the opposition parties are running their top candidates. They are Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party; Koba Davitashvili, for the Conservative-Republican bloc; former foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, leader of Georgia’s Way; and beer tycoon Giorgi Topadze, nominated by the Industrialists party. The opposition candidates will challenge incumbent Mayor Gigi Ugulava, from the National Movement.

Some sources said that the decision by Conservative, Republican, and Industrialists parties to participate in the elections was the result of secret negotiations with the authorities in August. Some analysts argue that a total boycott of the local election by the major opposition parties was the only threat the ruling party feared. Now the apparent political pluralism of the elections allows Saakashvili to stand before the international community with a clear conscience and claim that the elections are fair (Alia, TV-Kavkasia, September 19).

The National Movement’s aggressive campaign started far earlier than the opposition’s election preparations, indicating the authorities’ intention to win an overwhelming victory. However, the authorities are likely to grant a relatively loyal opposition group a certain amount of seats in order to avert criticism from international organizations.

Analysts argue that the situation could have been different if the opposition had managed to unite and nominate a single candidate, but it appears that the authorities have done their utmost to hinder this process. Some opposition leaders said that after the elections they would elaborate on the “real” reasons that hindered the unification of the opposition parties (Akhali Taoba, September 19; Kviris Palitra, September 18)

Meanwhile, the accuracy of voter lists still remains the subject of criticism by election watchdogs. After rechecking 100,000 voters in Tbilisi and in 13 other towns, the watchdog group New Generation-New Initiative reported on September 15 about discovering 1,140 voters missing from the list, while 628 deceased persons had been included (www.ngni.net). Central Election Commission (CEC) chair Guram Chalagashvili has admitted to some inaccuracies in the voter’s list, but said that margin of error does not exceed 3-4% (Kviris Palitra, September 18).

On September 16, the Tbilisi city court rejected a complaint filed against the CEC by the election watchdog Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, which wanted the commission to revoke its decision giving Ugulava an opportunity to become mayor through the party list without contesting a constituency seat in the elections. The election law dealing with Tbilisi city council elections says that only candidates contesting seats in the constituencies can take part in the party-list component of the council election (Kavkaz Press, September 16).

These violations, along with unequal competition, controversial election laws, and the refusal to directly elect mayors, will not make the October local elections any more democratic than the previous vote.