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Georgia: Vote Set To Begin Amid Queries On President's Tactics, Tensions In Adjaria

President Saakashvili: Shocking voters? Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili looks set to consolidate his power base when the Southern Caucasus nation renews its parliament in a 29 March legislative re-run. Experts believe Saakashvili's National Movement will win a large majority of seats in parliament. But despite its popularity, the ruling party has been accused of resorting to questionable election tactics. The campaign has also been largely overshadowed by the situation in the autonomous region of Adjaria. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.

Prague, 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia will hold a partial re-run on 28 March of last year's disputed legislative polls that paved the way for the political demise of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Following the change of regime -- which many in Georgia liken to a revolution -- Georgia's Supreme Court invalidated the mandate of those 150 lawmakers elected from party lists under a proportional system. For reasons that are still unclear, the panel authorized most of the remaining 85 deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies -- also known as majoritarian lawmakers -- to retain their seats in the legislature.

Nineteen parties or coalitions are vying for seats in parliament, but experts believe the polls will bring few surprises.

Korneli Kakachia chairs the Young Georgian Political Scientists' Association. He tells RFE/RL that the National Movement party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili looks set to repeat the landslide victory seen in January's early presidential polls.

"We should not expect any surprise, even though it is difficult to tell what the exact results will be. In any case, one thing is clear: The ruling party will probably garner at least 70 percent of the votes. As for other parties, I would say that their chances of success in this postrevolution context are not very high. I believe, however, that a few of them will manage to enter parliament, although they will certainly not have the influence [opposition] parties used to have [under the previous regime]," Kakachia says.

Saakashvili, who spearheaded last year's street protests that preceded Shevardnadze's ouster, was elected with more than 96 percent of the vote. His National Movement party controls all but a few government portfolios and makes up to 60 percent of candidates running for parliament on behalf of the ruling coalition.

Unlike the recent presidential poll -- when a boycott by many mainstream parties left Saakashvili with no serious challengers -- the coalition in power this time will meet with some resistance.

Many Georgians who voted for Saakashvili by default in January are now expected to cast their ballots for leading opposition groups, such as the New Rights or the left-wing Labor Party.

But whether these parties will win enough votes to overcome the 7 percent barrier required to enter parliament is unclear.

Fearing the ruling party will be overrepresented in the future legislature, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has demanded that the vote threshold be lowered to 4 or 5 percent. Georgian leaders have refused.

Saakashvili this week once again rejected PACE's concerns, saying the majoritarian deputies elected in November already constitute an opposition.

The Georgian president has been a constant presence in the election campaign, touring regions and making pledges on behalf of his party.

Asked by reporters whether he believed he, as the head of the executive, had the right to campaign for his party, Saakashvili had a blunt reply on 24 March.

"I am the guarantor of the constitution and no one can forbid the president to speak directly to his people," he said.

Yet Saakashvili's intense involvement in the election is raising eyebrows among the opposition and nongovernmental groups.

Tinatin Khidasheli chairs the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association. She tells our correspondent that Saakashvili's participation in the campaign violates existing legislation.

"Last February, parliament adopted constitutional amendments which say that, unlike under Shevardnadze, the president can now be a member or leader of a party. But Georgia's election law says very clearly that no representative of the executive power can take part in an [legislative] election campaign. Saakashvili says he is touring the regions to meet citizens. But it is pretty obvious that he is on an election campaign. He simply calls it something different. This, naturally, poses a very serious problem because state resources are being used by a political party for election purposes," Khidasheli says.

In another move that sparked widespread criticism, Saakashvili this week urged voters to not cast their ballots for parties that do not support his proposal to revoke legislation granting lawmakers immunity from criminal prosecution.

"I have proposed that parliamentary immunity be abolished. Unfortunately, not only do other parties not support this idea -- except Jumber Patiashvili's Ertoba [Unity] -- but they are also actively opposing it. I believe society should respond to these parties, because it is clear that they are selling [parliamentary] seats from their electoral lists. As a rule, these seats are being sold to people who will later demand that their parties offer them immunity from prosecution. I urge you to help us make sure that there are no longer any immune officials, either in parliament or the government."

Since his election, Saakashvili has launched a nationwide anticrime campaign that has led to the detention of dozens of allegedly corrupt officials linked to the previous administration.

Most detainees are in pretrial custody. The remainder have been released after paying heavy fines.

Although most Georgians welcomed Saakashvili's pledges to curb corruption, many criticize his methods. Rights campaigners, in particular, blame him for ignoring due process and proclaiming the guilt of detainees before they are put on trial.

Saakashvili has made his recent anticrime initiatives the centerpiece of the ruling coalition's campaign.

A National Movement election clip broadcast on state television opens with pictures of well-known former officials being arrested or sitting in prison cells: "For the first time in its history, Georgia has an efficient government. Under Shevardnadze, everyone believed it was impossible to combat corruption. But Saakashvili and his team have launched an uncompromising fight against corruption. Now, no one can escape justice. This fight is already bearing fruit. Government officials who had taken bribes or misappropriated public funds in the past were not only brought to justice, they were also forced to return the money they had stolen. As a result, and for the first time in years, salaries and pensions were paid on time."

The video clip ends with pictures of the Georgian leader descending the steps of the parliament building between two rows of soldiers in parade uniform.

Lawyer Khidasheli says this election clip has left her with serious concerns: "As a citizen of this country, this video clip, which opens and ends with pictures of soldiers, makes me feel uncomfortable. It is as if Georgia has turned into a militaristic country and life was now dominated by the military. On top of that, [Saakashvili] always talks about the defense of the country. For me this is a major problem."

Saakashvili's cultivation of ties with the military has raised concerns among the unruly leaders of the autonomous republic of Adjaria, who fear the Georgian president might attempt to forcibly regain control of their region. Among other grievances, the Georgian government accuses the Adjar leadership of failing to meet its financial obligations toward the state budget.

Tensions have heightened in recent weeks, as Georgian authorities have openly admitted they see the upcoming polls as a way to obtain a change of leadership in Adjaria.

Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union is running for seats in the Georgian parliament and, for the first time in years, is facing a local organized opposition sponsored by the central government.

Revival's controversial results last November -- it came first in Adjaria and second at the national level -- added fuel to the opposition's claims of vote rigging, a charge that contributed to Shevardnadze's demise.

Following Saakashvili's decision to impose a partial economic blockade on Adjaria, Abashidze last week agreed to let his rivals campaign freely in his fiefdom. He also gave his consent to the opening of a European election-observation mission in the republic's capital, Batumi.

Although he believes Abashidze is no longer in a position to claim wide support, political scientist Korneli Kakachia says the situation in Adjaria will still play a major role in the 28 March polls.

"One can say for sure that the situation in Adjaria will have an effect on the [election]. Actually, it already has had an effect. The recent events that took place in Ajara are part of the election campaign. The way the polls will be carried out [there] will have a great significance for Georgia," Kakachia says.

Dismissing Tbilisi's claims that his regime is unpopular among Adjars, Abashidze says he is confident his party will garner enough votes to enter the national parliament.

But as a new sign of defiance toward the central government, the Adjar leader said on 25 March that he would not disarm the popular militias he had set up at the peak of the recent tensions with Tbilisi.

Fearing the current standoff might lead to violence, PACE President Peter Schieder on 25 March urged Georgian authorities "to act with the utmost responsibility and restraint" to ensure the polls are conducted safely.