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Georgia: Will Parliamentary Vote Bring An End To Polarized Politics?

  • Brian Whitmore

A field of opposition protesters in Tbilisi after the presidential election tally was announced (epa) After surviving a close call in Georgia's snap presidential election four months ago, a chastened President Mikheil Saakashvili pledged to run a more open government, work more closely with the opposition, and pay greater attention to citizens' needs.


This week, voters have a chance to let him know how he's doing.


Georgia's 3.5 million eligible voters go to the polls to elect a new parliament on May 21, choosing from a total of 12 parties and electoral blocs.


Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement is widely expected to win the most mandates in the 150-seat legislature. But the critical questions, analysts say, are how well Georgia's fractured opposition will fare and whether the new parliament will be able to work with the president.


"What we will be looking for in the future is the level to which Georgian politics will continue to be so incredibly polarized and personalized as they are now," says Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. "Georgian politics are so polarized. It is about personalities; there is no trust, no willingness for dialogue between political actors. And there is still a proclivity on the part of the opposition to take to the streets instead of sitting down with their opponents."


Russia and the West will be watching the vote closely. At a NATO summit in Bucharest in April, leaders of the military alliance said free and fair parliamentary elections were a key criteria for Georgia receiving a coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- a key step toward joining the alliance that is warmly supported by some Western states and hotly opposed by Moscow.


The vote also comes at a delicate moment in Georgian-Russian relations, with tensions coming to a head over the pro-Moscow separatist region of Abkhazia.


Democratic Test


The elections cap a tumultuous six months that have transformed Georgian politics from the one-man show that was Saakashvili.


When the opposition staged massive street protests in Tbilisi in November to call for an end to Saakashvili's dominance over Georgian politics, the president responded by declaring emergency rule and temporarily shutting down all opposition media. The move severely damaged Saakashvili's reputation at home and abroad as a word-and-deed democrat.


Still, Saakashvili recovered and won a snap presidential election in January -- albeit with just 52 percent of the vote, a sharp decline from the 96 percent he won in 2004 when he was the hero of Georgia's democratic Rose Revolution.


The largest antigovernment bloc, the United Opposition, is widely expected to place second behind the ruling National Movement. The United Opposition, which encompasses nine political parties, continues to call for Saakashvili's ouster and is unlikely to foster a constructive relationship with the authorities. A leading member of the United Opposition, Ghia Tortladze, has already vowed to RFE/RL's Georgian Service that there will be "no cooperation whatsoever" if the vote is seen to be "rigged."


Disaffected Voters


While such an isolationist strategy might excite the opposition's base supporters, analysts say it is unlikely to have wide resonance.


Saakashvili's crackdown in November, when security forces violently dispersed protests, damaged his reputation at home and abroad (AFP)

"In Georgia there is a big vacuum, because there are a lot of people who are not satisfied with the government but at the same time don't think the opposition is credible," Cornell says. "Things can happen very quickly, and a centrist movement, if they have serious people and a long-term agenda, would be able to resonate with a number of people."


Two parties, the center-right Republicans and the newly formed Christian Democrats, are vying for that mantle. Both have indicated a willingness to work with the government, and analysts say both have a chance to win seats in parliament. Analysts say the center-left Labor Party also has an outside chance to enter the legislature.


Since winning reelection, a seemingly humbled Saakashvili has taken pains to show that he understands the mood of both the electorate and the opposition, enacting a series of electoral reforms his supporters say are meant to boost confidence in the elections.


Half of the parliament will now be elected by proportional representation by party list and half by single-member districts. The threshold to win seats has been lowered from 7 percent to 5 percent.


The state-financed media is also making an effort to appear balanced. One program on Georgian Public Television (hosted by RFE/RL correspondent Koba Liklikadze), features a panel discussion with representatives of each political party and the station's management in which the politicians can openly critique the media's fairness and objectivity.


New-Look Politics


Saakashvili, who was once fond of promoting his image as a seasoned figure on the foreign-policy stage, has also refocused much of his rhetoric on domestic issues.


During a recent tour through western Georgia, he attended the opening of a furniture factory in the town of Poti and the opening of a new seaport in Kulevi.


In the western Georgian town of Zugdidi, the president presided over a televised meeting of his cabinet, where he pledged to restore and upgrade the country's gas network, which has deteriorated in rural regions since the fall of the Soviet Union.


"By the end of the year, we will restore the gas network to the condition it was in during communism, and then we will increase the volume of gas that is delivered," Saakashvili told the ministers. "This is very important because we are moving forward. There are many places where gas is vital. It is vital for developing the agricultural sector, it is vital for schools that need to be heated, it is vital for people cannot afford to buy expensive wood for heating."


Analysts say that behind the populist rhetoric lie true changes in policy. According to Cornell, Saakashvili and his supporters are moving away from the idea -- prevalent during his first term -- that the market could solve all of society's ills.


"They have changed their economic policies. And they have been stepping away from the kind of neoliberal kind of economic and social policies that were supposing that growth would lead to improvements without doing much," Cornell says. "They have been trying to pay attention [to social needs]."


Moreover, in an effort to appear fresh and in touch with the times, the National Movement has filled its party list with mostly new faces with many stalwarts of Georgian politics -- like outgoing parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who recently announced she was taking herself out of the race -- conspicuously absent.


Such moves, Cornell says, have addressed much of the socioeconomic anxiety that helped fuel the protests that roiled Georgia in November.


"I don't think the people necessarily wanted to get rid of the government," Cornell says. "I think the people wanted a correction in the government's policies, not necessarily a regime change. So in that sense the government has probably done enough, certainly to come out as the first [place] party in the elections. Maybe enough to still hold on to their majority."


RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report

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