Predictably, the Georgian local elections last month have served to exacerbate the antagonism between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and the opposition United National Movement (ENM) that it defeated in the parliamentary ballot of October 2012.
The ENM has not only accused the authorities of resorting to deliberate intimidation and fraud, but argues that the July 1 arrest and subsequent detention in custody of former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, the coordinator of the ENM's election campaign, on new charges of misuse of public funds constitutes political persecution.
In addition, the ENM claims that the Central Election Commission violated the law when setting the date for runoff votes for the post of mayor in eight towns and cities and the heads of 13 regional councils (of a total of 59). Electoral amendments enacted in March raised to 50 percent the minimum vote a candidate for the post of mayor or regional council head must garner for an outright win.
The initial voting on June 15 evinced a clear preference for Georgian Dream among the 43.3 percent of the electorate motivated enough to cast ballots. (In the 2010 local elections, turnout was 49 percent). Georgian Dream polled marginally over 50 percent of the vote nationwide, followed by the ENM with 22.41 percent; the United Opposition comprising former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-One Georgia and Jondi Baghaturia's Kartuli Dasi (Georgian Group) (10.23 percent); the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (4.71 percent); the Labor Party (3.45 percent); the Nonparliamentary Opposition bloc (2.25 percent); and Georgia's Way (1.21 percent). None of the remaining 17 parties and blocs received more than 1 percent of the vote.
In Tbilisi, one of the eight towns where the mayoral race went to a second round, Georgian Dream candidate David Narmania polled 46.09 percent of the vote, followed by Nikanor Melia of the ENM with 27.97 percent and Dmitri Lortkipanidze, representing the United Opposition bloc, with 12.81 percent.
By contrast, in an opinion poll conducted in mid-April on behalf of the U.S. National Democracy Institute, 48 percent of those questioned said they planned to vote for Georgian Dream and just 12 percent for the ENM. By the same token, 39 percent of respondents planned to vote for Narmania, 10 percent for Melia and 9 percent for Lortkipanidze.
Both the election campaign and the voting were overshadowed by numerous allegations of foul play. The Tbilisi embassies of the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands, which jointly fielded 95 observers who visited 600 polling stations in 23 electoral districts, nonetheless characterized the actual voting as "successful and well-administered," and as demonstrating "the growing pluralism in Georgian democracy."
The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), however, registered a high number of void ballot papers and irregularities in drawing up final vote-summary protocols in hundreds of precincts, and called on June 23 for a vote recount in hundreds of polling stations.
Having assessed over 80 separate formal complaints lodged either by election watchdogs or the ENM and United Opposition, the Central Election Commission annulled the results at 14 polling stations and scheduled repeat voting on June 29.
Turnout for the repeat voting was even lower than on June 15: 36.63 percent. This time, ISFED registered only what it termed "minor technical flaws" that precinct officials sought to redress as they occurred. The NGO Fair Elections similarly described the voting as proceeding "quietly and in an organized fashion." The Central Election Commission said the following day that it had not received any complaints from organizations that monitored the vote.
The ENM nonetheless continues to accuse the authorities of creating unfair conditions for the runoff vote. On July 1, ENM representatives walked out of a session of the Interagency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections to protest what ENM's Zurab Chiaberashvili termed the body's "practice of justifying illegal actions or the inaction of law enforcement agencies" and its alleged failure to investigate violent clashes in the run-up to the June 15 vote or violations on polling day. One week earlier, Deputy Justice Minister Aleksandre Tabatadze had informed the Interagency Task Force that the commission had investigated all the complaints received and that for the first time ever, a criminal case had been opened in connection with malpractice.
The ENM has also played up the fact that the Central Election Commission, whether deliberately or inadvertently, apparently violated the law when scheduling for July 12 the runoff vote in the eight towns and cities and 13 regions where no candidate for mayor of district council head polled the minimum 50 percent of the vote on June 15. Ugulava had urged Central Election Commission Chairwoman Tamar Zhvania on June 23 to announce the runoff date at the earliest opportunity in order to give candidates the maximum time to prepare. Zhvania responded immediately that setting the date was not within her competence and could not be done until all complaints about the first round of voting had been resolved.
The commission duly endorsed the final results of the June 15 voting on July 3 and immediately scheduled the runoff for July 12. The ENM protested that decision, pointing out in a seeming inconsistency that the runoff date should not have been announced until July 9, and that a ruling adopted by the Central Election Commission on June 19 stipulated that a minimum of 10 days should elapse between the announcement and the vote. The party construed that glitch as further evidence that "the Central Election Commission is not serious about holding the second round."
Burjanadze's Democratic Movement–One Georgia, which qualified for the municipal runoffs in Tianeti, Tkibuli, Akhmeta, and Martvili, claimed the constitution required that runoffs should be announced 14 days in advance.
The Tbilisi Municipal Court has nonetheless upheld the Central Election Commission ruling.
ENM parliament member and former Deputy Justice Minister Giorgi Vashadze posited a direct link between the scheduling of the runoffs and Ugulava's arrest, which, Vashadze said, will put his party at a major disadvantage.
Meanwhile, Melia, the ENM's candidate for Tbilisi mayor, has finally agreed to his rival Narmania's proposal to hold televised debates in the run-up to the July 12 vote.
-- Liz Fuller