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Georgia: In Search Of A Constructive Opposition

  • Brian Whitmore --> Two young women amid campaign posters ahead of the May 21 vote (AFP) Speaking at a party congress earlier this month, the leader of Georgia's opposition Republican Party expressed a sentiment that reflects the views of many voters.

The country's rulers may be less than ideal, said Davit Usupashvili, but many prominent members of the fractious, noisy, and rambunctious opposition are "even more irresponsible than the current authorities."

Usupashvili's comments were a not-so-veiled reference to the United Opposition, a nine-party bloc led by Levan Gachechiladze, a former presidential candidate who has called for putting "an end to the Saakashvili regime" and ending what he calls "political terror."

The rift reflected deep divisions running through opponents to President Mikheil Saakashvili and his team as the country prepared for parliamentary elections on May 21. And how these fissures are resolved will largely determine the tone and tenor of Georgian politics as it enters a more pluralistic phase.

Usupashvili's Republicans -- who have made it clear that they favor a coalition government and are willing to work with Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement -- broke from the United Opposition bloc in February to contest the elections on their own.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, leading Republican Temur Nergadze said the party was prepared to work with the authorities if the conditions were right.

"It will depend on what they offer us -- what posts and what authority these posts have," Nergadze said. "This can be a subject of negotiations. But this is only in the case of fair elections. In any other case, all proposals would be rendered invalid."

'Big Vacuum'

The center-right Republicans, who are popular among intellectuals and the middle class, have played up their moderate credentials and are seeking to attract voters spooked by what many see as the opposition's radicalism and intransigence.

Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, says there is a "big vacuum" in Georgia's political center that could provide an opening for a party like the Republicans.

But despite this, he says there is a danger that the majority of opposition-minded voters will continue to support the United Opposition's less flexible course.

"You can see a tendency that radicalism is rewarded and compromise is not rewarded," Cornell says. "So the more moderate or responsible opposition parties may well get less votes than the radical opposition parties. Which then is going to lead them to think further that 'Hey, you know, why should we have a dialogue if this doesn't get us public support?'"

Most public-opinion polls have the Republicans winning slightly less than the 5 percent necessary to win seats in parliament, while the United Opposition is consistently polling in double digits.

One party that could fill the void in the center is the newly formed Christian-Democratic Movement, led by Giorgi Targamadze, a former news anchor and head of the information department at the opposition television station Imedi.

Formed in February, the party is running on a platform of "protecting Georgian Orthodox Christianity."

In just a few short months, they have soared in the polls and many analysts expect them to win seats in parliament. Perhaps for this reason, Tbilisi is rife with unconfirmed rumors that they are actually clandestinely collaborating with -- and being financed by -- the country's rulers. Targamadze has rejected such claims as "slander."

Members of the United Opposition have warned the authorities against falsifying the election results and have threatened to take to the streets in the event of fraud.

But the bloc has also made it clear that -- despite being far behind the ruling United National Movement in the polls -- it expects to win the May 21 vote and would interpret anything less as evidence of vote rigging.

As Gia Tortladze, a leading member of the United Opposition tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service, the bloc will only cooperate with the authorities if they view the election as clean.

"If the elections are fair we are ready to cooperate with and talk to anybody, but only if the elections are not rigged," Tortladze says. "But if the authorities brazenly rig the elections and enter parliament with a huge majority, then this will have grave consequences. In such a case, there can be no cooperation whatsoever."