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Georgian Local Elections Focus Of Intense Scrutiny

A woman walks past election posters in the center of Tbilisi.

A woman walks past election posters in the center of Tbilisi.

On May 30, Georgians go to the polls to elect new municipal councils across the country and the mayor of Tbilisi. In the wake of two successive elections in 2008 (presidential in January and parliamentary in May) that many opposition parties claim were rigged, the key issue is not so much one of policy, or even who will win most votes where, as of procedure: will President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (EEM) use all the administrative resources at its disposal to preserve its hold on power, or it will it allow a vote that is truly free, fair, and democratic?

In light of international criticism of the 2008 elections, Saakashvili has repeatedly stressed that the local elections must be "exemplary," and proceed "calmly" and "in an organized way." It is a measure of the importance the Georgian authorities attach to securing a positive assessment of the vote that they asked the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to deploy an election observation mission.

ODIHR does not generally monitor municipal elections: it did so most recently in Moldova in 2007 and in Bosnia in 2008. But it is treating the Georgian elections as though they were national ones, and will deploy some 200 observers.

In all, some 38 domestic NGOs and 26 international bodies will deploy monitors, Caucasus Press reported on May 24. The international contingent includes a group from the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and one from the British Embassy in Tbilisi.

Some Georgian political figures nonetheless doubt whether the presence of such a large contingent of observers will deter procedural violations on polling day, and how incisive the criticisms of any such violations that do occur will be. Gogi Topadze, one of the nine candidates for Tbilisi mayor, told the Council of Europe observers on May 4 that "elections are rigged year after year. European observers come and say one and the same thing: the elections were held in a democratic manner, albeit with minor violations." Topadze said foreign observers would do better not to come at all than to continue to offer such assessments, Caucasus Press reported.

A total of 36 political parties applied to participate in the local elections, of which the Central Election Commission registered 26; two subsequently withdrew. Ten of the 14 remaining parties aligned in three blocs. Fourteen parties or blocs registered lists of candidates for election (under the proportional system) to the Tbilisi municipal council.

Nine candidates registered for the Tbilisi mayoral ballot, including incumbent Gigi Ugulava; former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania, who now heads the opposition Alliance for Georgia; Zviad Dzidziguri of the opposition National Council bloc; and beer magnate and former legislator Gogi Topuria, who heads the Industry Will Save Georgia party.

The Labor Party and former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia declined to participate in the local elections. Burjanadze and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili both called on other opposition parties to boycott rather than participate in an exercise that Natelashvili described as intended to "save the authorities' collective skin."

The 86,000-strong Armenian community of Tbilisi has expressed resentment at the failure of both Saakashvili's EEM and prominent opposition parties to include Armenian candidates on their lists for the elections to the Tbilisi council.

The initial assessment of the election campaign made public on May 7 by the OSCE election observation mission noted that despite numerous amendments to the Electoral Code, most recently in December 2009, provisions remain in force that "allow unlimited campaigning by political officials and the use of administrative resources for campaign purposes." Those provisions, the interim report said, "do not guarantee a level playing field for all contestants."

In an attempt to minimize, if not preclude the abuse of administrative resources on behalf of candidates representing the ruling party, a group of Georgian NGOs under the auspices of the National Democratic Institute drafted a memorandum on how such resources may be used. Twelve political parties fielding candidates in the municipal elections, including the EEM but not Industry Will Save Georgia and the Alliance for Georgia, signed that memorandum with the Central Election Commission on May 8.

An inter-factional parliamentary group is monitoring compliance with the memorandum, and its head told journalists on May 19 that there have been infrequent isolated violations. The cases he cited were mostly of local representatives of the EEM threatening to withhold social benefits from persons who declined to pledge they would vote for EEM candidates.

But statements by the opposition National Council suggest that there is a clear pattern of intimidation of its candidates, up to one dozen of whom have pulled out of the race, citing pressure from the authorities in the Kvareli, Tianeti, Sagaredjo, Lentekhi and Akhalkalaki districts, according to Caucasus Press on May 5 and 10.

The National Council unites the Conservative and People's parties and former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's movement For a Just Georgia. Noghaideli and Conservative leader Koba Davitashvili have both been subjected to widespread media vilification for traveling to Moscow to meet with Russian leaders in a bid to seek ways to defuse the festering tensions between the two countries.

The Alliance for Georgia too has complained of pressure. The group's leader in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 11 that the pressure on its candidates began in April and steadily intensified.

Malkhaz Khutsishvili, who heads the alliance's branch in Sighnaghi, told Caucasus Press on May 12 that the local authorities were extorting money (10,000 laris, or $5,609) from businessmen to finance the EEM's election campaign.

Ambassador Peter Semneby, the European Union's special representative for Georgia, noted the focus on procedure, rather than policy issues in a recent interview with Semneby said that if the May 30 elections were conducted "well," demonstrating the development of political and democratic culture, it will mean that Georgia "has been able to overcome some of the consequences of the previous difficult situation" and is "moving towards a more stable institutional framework in terms of political process."

At the same time, Semneby acknowledged that this would be only the beginning of a broader process that will encompass the adoption of a new constitution and Electoral Code. Alluding to the frequent amendments to the constitution since Saakashvili was first elected in January 2004, Semneby said he hoped the new constitution and election law "will remain in place for some time without being instrumentalized in the day-to-day political struggle."

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.