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Georgia: Democratic Stakes High In Early Presidential Vote

By Salome Asatiani and Daisy Sindelar Saakashvili has dominated state television (InterPressNews) Georgian voters went to the polls on January 5 to cast ballots in early presidential elections called in the wake of large antigovernment protests and a violent government crackdown in November.

The vote was widely seen as a referendum on the Rose Revolution and the man it catapulted to power, Mikheil Saakashvili. Official results were expected late the following day.

Mounting public dissent forced Saakashvil in November to impose a state of emergency and call an early poll, rather than serve a full term through 2008.

However, the decision left his rivals with barely a month to mobilize their campaigns.

The 40-year-old Saakashvili, who stepped down from the presidency to conduct his campaign, as required by the constitution, has been a near-constant presence on state-controlled TV broadcasts -- even beaming in live for a nationwide New Year's Eve greeting, placing himself ahead of broadcasts by the Georgian patriarch, Ilia II, and the acting president, Nino Burjanadze.

Opposition candidates, by contrast, had to make do with far less screen time.

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported Georgia's public broadcaster had dedicated upward of 40 percent of its election coverage during a period of December to the incumbent. The next-most-visible candidate, Davit Gamkrelidze of the New Rightists party, received only 17 percent.

Davit Usupashvili, the head of the Republican Party, which backed unified opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze, says media access was especially difficult because of the problems surrounding the country's main private broadcaster.

The station, Imedi-TV, voluntarily suspended broadcasts in late December just weeks after it resumed operations following a media blackout decreed by Saakashvili during the state of emergency.

"The first, forced shutdown of Imedi-TV, followed by its vague closure this time around, has seriously affected our campaign," Usupashvili says. "The bias of other national television companies is very obvious -- the monitoring committee and many observers have pointed this out as well.

Such complaints had Western observers worried.

As colored revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan turned sour, many looked to Tbilisi to provide the best example that a flourishing democracy could take root in former Soviet soil.

Saakashvili, whose bloodless ouster of the Soviet-era government in the 2003 Rose Revolution earned him automatic democratic credentials, has pursued an aggressive course of reform with the aim of convincing the West it was a worthy candidate for NATO membership and European Union integration.

Moreover, he had largely managed to stay the course of reform despite extreme animosity from Moscow, which resents Tbilisi's Western course and has used economic sanctions and military threats in its breakaway regions to temper Georgia's actions.

Use Of Force

But hopes for Georgia faded in November, when Saakashvili sanctioned the use of force against protesters and imposed a state of emergency, which many saw as a surprisingly heavy-handed move for a self-described reformist.

The democracy-promotion group Freedom House last week issued an early excerpt from its annual global-freedom index ahead of the Georgian elections. In it, the group warned that Tbilisi's standing on political rights and civil liberties in 2007 "moved sharply in the wrong direction."

Christopher Walker, the author of the Freedom House report, says that Saakashvili "deserves quite a bit of credit for pulling Georgia out of its post-Soviet doldrums and pushing an ambitious reform agenda since the events of 2003." That is why, he says, "the events of November 2007 were all the more jarring because the expectations of Georgia...were contradicted by those events."

Saakashvili, feeling the chill after a years-long courtship with the West, was under considerable pressure to guarantee a free and fair vote.

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights sent more than 300 short- and long-term observers to monitor the vote. The European Union, the Council of Europe, and the CIS Observer Mission also sent observers. In total, more than 1,000 international observers were expected to be on hand.

Georgia's Central Election Commission was taking measures it said were meant to eliminate the risk of tampering when an expected 3 million Georgians turned up at the polls. This included the step of installing two video cameras in each of Georgia's 3,800 polling stations -- one aimed at the registration desk and one at the ballot box.

Opposition Accusations

Opposition candidates alleged even before polling stations opened that the vote would be rigged, and called on the Georgian public to flood the streets on January 6, when official results were due to be announced.

They also complained that election officials had done little to ensure that resources for transportation, advertising, and other campaign materials had been equally divided among the candidates.

Election Committee Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili said that "not a single complaint about administrative resources has proven to be true."

Another controversy surrounding the elections involved the on-and-off candidacy of Georgia's richest man, Badri Patarkatsishvili.

The tycoon, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, conducted a combative, long-distance campaign from London, where he relocated to avoid possible prosecution over claims by Tbilisi that he funded the November protests in a bid to overthrow the government.

Patarkatsishvili's presidential bid appeared to lose steam last week following the release of tapes showing him offering an Interior Ministry official $100 million to create the appearance of voter fraud. He suggested he was withdrawing from the race, only to announce a sensational reversal in a video message from London aired on January 3 on Georgian television.

Seven Candidates

In total, seven candidates participated in the first-round race; ahead of the voting, unified opposition candidate Gachechiladze was considered the strongest rival to Saakashvili.

Gachechiladze, a wine entrepreneur and Saakashvili's former campaign manager, based his campaign on a single, divisive issue: if elected, he said, he would abolish the presidency and form a parliamentary republic in which the prime minister held primary power. He had already named former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili as his choice for prime minister.

Four individual opposition parties -- the New Rightists, the leftist-populist Labor, the relatively unknown Future, and the Russian-leaning Hope -- were also fronting candidates (Davit Gamkrelidze, Shalva Natelashvili, Gia Maisashvili, and Irina Sarishvili, respectively).

A candidate needed 50 percent, plus one vote, in order to win in the first round outright.

It had been suggested that going to a second round on January 19 would in fact be the best possible outcome for Saakashvili, who badly needed to reassure his public and the West that the democratic process remained vital in Georgia. In looking for votes, Saakashvili's campaign rhetoric emphasized domestic issues like poverty and infrastructure over the lofty foreign-policy goals that marked his earlier days in power.

In the end, says Tbilisi-based analyst Ghia Nodia, the vote -- with its slightly less-than-certain outcome -- should have been both good and bad for Georgia. It is, he said ahead of the polling, the first time that voters would go to presidential polls without absolute certainty of the outcome.

"On the one hand, these are the first genuinely competitive presidential elections in Georgia. So this is a positive aspect," Nodia said. "But on the other hand, it is also a challenge, because when stakes are so high in the elections, there is a particularly high degree of tension and mutual distrust."

Two nonbinding plebiscites were also being held during the poll. One asked voters whether 2008 parliamentary elections should be held in the spring or fall. The second was meant to gauge public support for the country's NATO membership bid.

Georgia is hoping to receive encouragement from the alliance in the form of a Membership Action Plan at NATO's Bucharest summit in April. NATO membership enjoys nearly universal support in Georgia, among the public and politicians alike.

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