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Georgia: Scheduling Of Local Elections Triggers Furor

Former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili could profit from the opposition disarray (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, September 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- President Mikheil Saakashvili's August 26 decision to bring forward the date of elections for local and municipal councils and mayors of major towns and cities has triggered a storm of protest from Georgian opposition parties, including those that earlier announced their intention to boycott that ballot. And the apparent willingness of the ruling National Movement to "bend the rules" to permit parliament deputies to participate in mayoral elections has only made things worse.

On August 7, presidential-administration head Giorgi Arveladze said the local elections would be held in early December, Caucasus Press reported. But on August 28 -- a public holiday in Georgia -- it was announced that President Saakashvili signed a decree two days earlier scheduling the elections for October 5. Those opposition parties that had not yet done so were constrained to scramble to submit applications to register for the ballot before the formal deadline for doing so expired at 6 p.m. local time on August 28.

To Boycott Or Participate?

Earlier this summer, the major opposition parties -- the Republican party headed by Davit Usupashvili, the New Conservatives (aka New Rightists) headed by Davit Gamkrelidze, the Conservatives (co-chaired by Koba Davitashvili and Zviad Dzidziguri), the Industrialists (Zurab Tkemaladze), the Labor party (Chairman Shota Natelashvili), Tavisupleba (Liberty, chaired by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, son of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia), and the People's Forum (headed by Akaki Asatiani) -- mulled a collective boycott of the ballot, but were advised against it on the grounds that the minimum voter participation for the ballot to be valid is so low that a boycott could not affect the outcome, according to "The Messenger" on July 17.

Following further consultations on August 5, the Republicans, Conservatives, and Industrialists decided to field candidates in the ballot, while the remaining four parties held fast to the idea of a boycott, Caucasus Press reported. Labor's Natelashvili was nonetheless quoted on August 7 as saying he might reconsider that decision.

On August 22, Republican party parliament deputy Davit Berdzenishvili was quoted by the daily "Rezonansi" as saying that the Republicans, Conservatives, and Industrialists would resume talks at the end of the month on forming an election bloc, and hoped they could persuade the Labor party to align with them, Civil Georgia reported.

On August 31, Natelashvili announced that Labor will indeed participate in the vote, adding that he believes it has "the best chance" of winning, Caucasus Press reported. Labor made a strong showing in the 2002 municipal elections, garnering the largest percentage of the vote (25.5 percent) in Tbilisi. But Tavisupleba reaffirmed its intention to boycott the election, Caucasus Press reported on August 28.

New Rightists leader Gamkrelidze (InterPressNews, file photo)

The Greens and the movement We Ourselves issued comparable statements on August 30 saying they will not participate in the ballot, while Samartlianoba (Justice) did likewise on August 31.

Registration Difficulties

Prior to Saakashvili's August 28 announcement, the only opposition formation to have registered for the local elections was Georgia's Path, the movement established by Salome Zourabichvili following her dismissal as foreign minister last fall.

On August 28, seven other parties also applied for registration: the Republican party, Industry Will Save Georgia, and the smaller and less influential National Ideology Party, Merab Kostava Society, and Mother Georgia. The two latter parties were refused registration, however, on the grounds that they failed to submit the required 50,000 signatures in their support, according to Caucasus Press on August 31. The Conservatives and Labor were exempt from registration, having fielded candidates independently in previous elections, according to Caucasus Press on August 28.

A total of nine parties finally succeeded in registering, according to Caucasus Press on August 31: Industry Will Save Georgia, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, the National Ideology Party, Georgia's Way, the New Conservatives, the ruling United National Movement, the National-Democratic Party, and the Labor Party.

Tricky Scheduling

Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission sought to address a further problem resulting from the timing of the local election. The election law stipulates that parliament deputies must temporarily relinquish their mandates before registering as mayoral candidates. But the deadline for registration is September 11, while parliament reconvenes after its summer recess only on September 12.

That restriction affects Conservative party leader Koba Davitashvili and the Republicans' Berdzenishvili, who sought to run for mayor in Tbilisi and Batumi, respectively. Both men accused the Georgian authorities on August 29 of sabotaging their chances of participating in the election, the pro-government television station Rustavi-2 reported.

Giga Bokeria, a prominent member of the parliament faction of the majority National Movement, suggested on August 28 that Davitashvili and Berdzenishvili should appeal to the parliament's bureau to convene an emergency session at which they could surrender their mandates, Caucasus Press reported.

Central Election Commission Chairman Guram Chalagashvili for his part reasoned that the parliament bureau will convene one week before the opening of the fall session and that body strip the two deputies of their mandates, Civil Georgia reported on August 29.

But Tina Khidasheli of the Republican party countered on August 29 that Bokeria's suggestion violates not only the law on parliament deputies but also the Georgian Constitution. Parliament deputy Kakha Kukava (Conservative) similarly said it would be "absolutely illegal" for the parliament bureau to do so.

Opposition Bloc Infighting

The Tbilisi mayoral election may, moreover, prove an obstacle to the creation of an opposition bloc to challenge the ruling National Movement in voting across the country. Four parties -- the New Conservatives, the Republicans, the Conservatives, and Industry Will Save Georgia -- are currently mulling such an alignment, according to Civil Georgia on August 30.

Davitashvili hopes to run for Tbilisi mayor (InterPressNews, file photo)

But as indicated above, Conservative leader Davitashvili hopes to run for Tbilisi mayor, while the New Conservatives are reportedly considering making their participation in a putative opposition bloc contingent on that bloc nominating wealthy businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili as its candidate for that post.

New Conservatives leader Gamkrelidze explained to journalists on August 29 that there is little point in participating in the elections unless the bloc has a real chance of success, and that Patarkatsishvili is undoubtedly their best bet.

(An opinion poll of 447 people conducted in June by the weekly "Kviris palitra" found that Patarkatsishvili was the most popular prospective candidate, with 27 percent support, followed by Zourabichvili [18 percent], Davitashvili [16 percent] and incumbent Gigi Ugulava and beer magnate Gogi Topadze, founder of Industry Will Save Georgia, both with 14 percent.)

But Tkemaladze was quoted on August 30 as saying the Industrialists plan to nominate Topadze as their candidate for Tbilisi mayor, while Republican party leader Usupashvili told Civil Georgia on August 22 that his party has "never considered" nominating Patarkatsishvili.

In light of those two parties' reservations about Patarkatsishvili's candidacy, the prospective opposition alliance could be confined to the Conservatives and Republicans. Those two parties are now considering the possibility of nominating former Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava as their candidate for mayor of Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported on August 31.

Khaindrava, who was dismissed in July following disagreements with hawkish Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, has not yet commented publicly on that possibility. Nor is it clear whether Davitashvili would shelve his own ambitions to back Khaindrava.

Zourabichvili, who plans to run in the Tbilisi mayoral election, stands to gain if the other opposition parties fail to unite behind a single candidate. Speaking on August 29 at a press conference in Tbilisi, she described herself as "the real opposition candidate," according to Civil Georgia. She also branded the authorities' decision to bring the election date forward by two months "a sign of weakness."

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