As expected, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement party won Georgia’s October 5 local elections by a landslide. Held amid Tbilisi’s sharpest confrontation with Moscow in a decade, the elections provided an opportunity for the ruling party to tout its tough stance toward Russia in connection with the ongoing spy scandal (see EDM, October 2, 6, 10). The widely televised images of the four Russian intelligence officers being handed over to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and then on to Russia on October 2 evidently increased the ruling party’s popularity.
The National Movement had already gained a definite advantage over the opposition parties by launching widely advertised social aid and economic programs simultaneously with the lavish campaign.
The government also managed to pacify an anticipated protest by grape-harvesters and winemakers after the Russian embargo on Georgian wine (see EDM, April 20, July 3). On August 31 Saakashvili decreed that each leading Georgian company had to purchase 10-15 tons of grapes and pointedly assigned the heads of “power” agencies to monitor the implementation of this order.
Elections were held in the Georgian-controlled upper Kodori Gorge of breakaway Abkhazia, and in the Georgian villages of breakaway South Ossetia.
According to data provided by the Central Election Commission (CEC), the National Movement won a total of 77.08%, followed by the Davitashvili-Khidasheli-Berdzenishvili bloc (8.56%), Labor (6.42%), Industry to Save Georgia (3.78%), and Georgia’s Way (1%). The National Movement is the undisputed winner in the capital, Tbilisi, and other major towns with 66.5% of votes. This means that the ruling party will control local councils for the next four years.
The results of parallel vote tabulation, unveiled by election watchdogs, comply with the official data. The first-past-the-post, “winner takes all” system used in Tbilisi gave the ruling party 34 seats out of 37 in Tbilisi’s city council. At its first sitting today (October 12), the Tbilisi city council overwhelmingly re-elected incumbent Zaza Begashvili as council chair and elected incumbent Gigi Ugulava as Tbilisi mayor. Both men are prominent activists of the ruling party.
The coalition of the Republican and Conservative parties and the Labor and Industry Will Save Georgia parties will receive one or two seats in the councils of Tbilisi and other cities. Georgia’s Way, the opposition party led by former foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili, whom the authorities reportedly planned to aid, unexpectedly failed to pass the 4% election barrier.
The opposition parties were in a losing situation from the start. They had launched election campaigns far later than the National Movement and were weakened by splits inside the parties and between them (see EDM, June 14, August 17, September 20). They were acutely short of funds, power, and administrative resources, advantages that the ruling party lavishly exploited. The opposition’s short-lived and, according to pundits, feeble campaign largely focused on a blanket criticism of the authorities, without offering sound, understandable alternatives. In several regions the ruling party did not face rivals because the opposition parties had failed to nominate candidacies.
At a meeting with the leading parliamentarians of the ruling party on October 9, Saakashvili hailed the ruling party’s convincing victory and noted the opposition’s “deplorable” showing. He said that Georgia’s foes had failed to “stage the Ukrainian scenario” in Georgia. Saakashvili also divulged that the opposition had turned down his offers to negotiate the election date. Saakashvili’s caustic suggestion that the country would go nowhere if the opposition comes to power suggests that the ruling party will continue to deal with the opposition from a position of strength rather than as partners.
The opposition party leaders, except Zourabichvili, who acknowledged defeat, complained that the ballot was largely unfair. Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party and the most vocal opponent of the government, called for the cancellation of the election results and pledged to “remove Saakashvili from power at the cost of life.” He repeatedly accused the American institutions working in Georgia and the current U.S. administration of a pro-Saakashvili bias.
Both local watchdogs and international organizations, including the U.S. Embassy, have largely assessed the elections as free and fair. However, they recommended that the authorities should “make further improvements in the electoral process.” Among the irregularities that international observers particularly highlighted were inaccuracies in voter registers that turned away many potential voters and “blurred the distinction between the ruling authorities and the leading party,” which “reinforced the advantage of the incumbents.”
According to various sources, the election turnout was a paltry 33%, the lowest yet for previous local elections. This trend partially echoes the results of public opinion surveys for the last year, which have shown that a growing number of voters are disappointed with the policies of the ruling party, but see no other political choice. How this constituency approaches the parliamentary elections in 2008 remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the one-party dominance in the local councils is likely to hamper the participatory decision-making process. It will also further strengthen Saakashvili’s rule at the local level, which evidently meets the interests of the West, given the current uneasy situation in and around Georgia (see EDM, October 10).
(www.isfed.ge, Resonansi, Kviris Palitra, October 9; Civil Georgia, October 6-9; TV-Rustavi-2, October 5-10; Caucasus Press, October 11)