Prague, 11 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks ago, two representatives from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) went to Georgia to assess the situation ahead of the 28 March legislative elections.
Matyas Eorsi of Hungary and Evgueni Kirilov of Bulgaria held talks with cabinet members, election officials, leaders of the ruling and opposition parties, civic rights campaigners, and media representatives. President Mikheil Saakashvili was on a visit to the United States and could not meet the two delegates.
"It is very important to have an opposition in a multi-party parliament, and one of [our] major fears is that, no matter how democratically the elections will be conducted, [they will result] in a one-party parliament."
Following their visit, the European parliamentarians released a statement in which they reprimanded the new Georgian leadership for failing to follow what they said were "crucial recommendations" made by the Strasbourg-based assembly a month earlier.
Since then, the Georgian government has offered to increase the representation of opposition parties in the central and regional election commissions and has taken steps to upgrade the national voters' register.
Talking to RFE/RL from Budapest on 9 March, Eorsi praised these efforts. But he deplored the fact that other recommendations designed to foster pluralistic democracy in a country that has just witnessed a plebiscite-like presidential election are being ignored. Eorsi, who is PACE's co-rapporteur on Georgia, will lead a team of 30 election observers to the country later this month.
Saakashvili was elected head of state in early January with more than 96 percent of the vote. A few weeks earlier, the National Movement party leader had spearheaded peaceful street protests against allegedly rigged 2 November parliamentary polls, which eventually led to Shevardnadze's resignation.
Eorsi, who headed the PACE observation election mission to Georgia in January, has said the presidential election marked significant progress compared to previous polls. But, as he told RFE/RL, it was also imperfect because most opposition leaders boycotted the polls, leaving Saakashvili with no serious challenger.
"We have to say that the real test [of] whether the new authorities will be capable and willing to conduct really good elections will be the [upcoming] parliamentary elections. One of the major problems of the presidential election is that it was not contested at all. It was a one-man show. But a real democracy needs contesters. [It needs] lots of candidates running for seats. And parliamentary elections are supposed to be [like that]," Eorsi said.
Following Shevardnadze's resignation, Georgia's Supreme Court annulled the results of the November polls, but only for those 150 deputies elected from party lists under a proportional system. For reasons that remain unclear, the mandates of the 85 deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies were declared valid.
In line with the court's ruling, all majoritarian deputies elected in 1999 kept their seats until the outgoing legislature's final session late last month.
Nineteen parties or coalitions are vying for seats in the next parliament.
Saakashvili's National Movement and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's United Democrats party will run in a single ticket with candidates affiliated with the third leader of last November's anti-Shevardnadze protests -- Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze.
With the exception of four formations -- the New Rights, the Union of Traditionalists, the National Democratic Party, and the so-called Industrialists -- which have sealed two separate alliances, most opposition parties will compete in a disorganized manner.
Fearing that the ruling coalition, which already dominates the executive, might eventually control all branches of power, the Council of Europe is pressing the Georgian leadership to amend existing legislation so that as many opposition parties as possible are represented in the legislature.
"We've tried to convince the Georgian authorities that the [vote] threshold should be decreased from [a current] 7 percent to the European average of 4 to 5 percent in order to enable smaller parties to gain seats in parliament. It is very important to have an opposition in a multi-party parliament, and one of [our] major fears is that, no matter how democratically the elections will be conducted, [they will result] in a one-party parliament which, we strongly believe, would be detrimental to democracy in Georgia," Eorsi said.
During his recent visit to Tbilisi, Eorsi says he raised with Prime Minister Zhvania the possibility of calling an emergency session of the outgoing parliament to adopt the proposed legal amendments.
"I understand this is difficult, but it should be noted that if the threshold is not pushed down, if the 7 percent threshold remains and if, as a result, there is only one party represented in parliament, then the [parliamentary] majority and the government will pay a huge price for it," Eorsi said.
Georgian leaders have poured cold water on the Council of Europe's recommendations.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili during a visit to Germany in late January, Saakashvili said he was against modifying the existing legislation, arguing a higher vote barrier would better serve the interests of democracy.
"We are categorically against lowering the [vote] barrier because that would mean letting corrupt interest groups into parliament to lobby their own interests. Furthermore, when the [vote] barrier is high, the opposition has an incentive to unite, to grow and that, too, meets the interests of society," Saakashvili said.
Addressing reporters after his talks with Eorsi, Zhvania last month indicated the vote barrier could be lowered. But, after weeks of procrastination, the ruling coalition now says it is firmly opposed to such a change.
United Democrats Secretary-General Mikheil Machavariani tells our correspondent it is now impossible to amend the legislation, if only for lack of time.
"Unfortunately, even if we were willing to lower the vote barrier, that would be technically impossible. This is a constitutional issue. The constitution demands that in such cases a number of rules be followed. [It says] that this question can be submitted to parliament for approval only after it has been debated publicly for a whole month. Besides, I am not sure such a proposal would win the support of 157 parliamentarians, which is the legal number of votes required to reform the constitution," Machavariani said.
Last month, parliament hastily voted constitutional changes that handed greater powers to the executive against the legislature and gave the president the upper hand over the judiciary.
Critics say the controversial reform plan violates the constitution because it was drafted secretly and not submitted for public debate ahead of the parliamentary vote.
Georgia's Traditionalists last month demanded that an emergency parliamentary session be held to debate the vote barrier issue. Yet, Machavariani argues that none of the opposition groups favors lowering the threshold.
"I think the 7 percent barrier will not be an obstacle for opposition parties. They say themselves that they will experience no difficulty in overcoming this threshold and that, on the contrary, they will garner 10 to 17 percent of the votes, if not more. [Besides], none of these parties supports that idea because they think it might affect their popular rating by making people believe they are afraid of the 7 percent barrier and that it should be therefore lowered," Machavariani said.
Machavariani says that, in his view, three opposition groups stand a good chance of entering parliament -- the left-wing Labor Party, which came fourth in the previous elections; the New Rights-Industrialists coalition; and Tavisupleba (Liberty), a party led by the son of late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.
Results of a recent opinion poll published this week (9 March) by Georgia's Caucasus Press news agency give a radically different picture, however.
The poll, which surveyed 7,500 respondents across Georgia, suggests that despite losing some popular support in recent weeks, the ruling National Movement-United Democrats coalition would win more than 40 percent of the votes if the election were to be held now.
The survey also indicates that no other party would overcome the 7 percent vote barrier required to enter parliament.