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Georgia: Local Elections Bring Significant Political Changes

By Davit Berdzenishvili

Tbilisi, 4 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's complex political landscape has undergone significant changes as a result of the elections to local administrative bodies held there on November 15.

President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) received a majority in Tbilisi and most other town councils. But in contrast to the 1995 parliamentary elections, many parties overcame the five percent barrier, thereby depriving the SMK of the chance to capitalize on votes for the opposition.

Three years ago, the SMK won 23 percent of the vote, which translated into 60 percent of the seats in parliament. This time, it received 29 percent of the vote in Tbilisi, which will give it one-third of the seats on the capital's councils.

Only a little more than one-third of the electorate participated in the poll, which means the country's leadership enjoys the trust of perhaps 10 to 11 percent of the population. In a few districts the situation is different: the central authorities have traditionally received a "record harvest" in the Azerbaijani- and Armenian-populated regions of Kvemo Kartli and Djavakheti. The population in those regions is cut off from social and political processes, and successive Georgian leaderships have regarded them as one big ballot box.

Aslan Abashidze, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, whose Union for Democratic Revival is the strongest opposition party to Shevardnadze's SMK, took the same approach in Adjaria. True to Communist standards, his party won all mandates there. In those regions, the local elections are used not to build democratic institutions in the form of local administrative bodies with even limited powers, but to preserve the nomenklatura regime and to isolate the local population from civic processes.

Elections were not held in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, neither of which currently acknowledge Tbilisi's jurisdiction, and their alienation from both Tbilisi and democratic institutions was reinforced.

At the center of Georgian political life is the Union of Citizens of Georgia, both the composition and the program of which is eclectic. It is an associate member of the Socialist International, but is simultaneously trying to implement rightist reforms, albeit without much success. Over the past few years the main opponents of the young reformist leadership of the presidential party have been the ambitious and seasoned national democrats of the right and the "European"-style socialists on the left. The latter have never left Shevardnadze's orbit, and compete with the present parliament leadership for his favor.

Both parties, the SMK and the Union for Democratic Revival, suffered a defeat of sorts in the local elections. But forces on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, which in recent years have sharply opposed Shevardnadze, were more successful. Those parties are the Labor Party, the Popular faction (which split from the National Democratic Party) and also the Traditionalists, formerly part of Zviad Gamsakhurdia's Round Table/Free Georgia coalition.

The ultra-left and ultra-right parties fared extremely badly, which makes the strong showing of the Labor Party, which took second place, all the more striking: it was the Labor Party which succeeded in winning the votes of a large proportion of the electorate who are nostalgic for the Soviet past, and which has now effectively occupied the far-left position on the political spectrum.

A similar phenomenon is apparent on the right: Aslan Abashidze's Union for Revival surmounted the five percent barrier in Tbilisi and on other town and city councils, which suggests that it is evolving from a regional nomenklatura organization into a state structure. But it still lagged significantly behind the winning parties and is not self-sufficient to create an alternative state-political center to the Shevardnadze leadership. Its presence on local councils will nonetheless give it the opportunity to intensify the cooperation with other opposition parties which it embarked on several years ago.

The Union of Citizens of Georgia has succeeded in discrediting the idea of reform in the eyes of most voters. In conditions where inadequate salaries and pensions are paid months late, and in the absence of any tangible improvement, the sole incentive for many voters to vote voluntarily for the ruling party was "better the devil you know than the devil you don't know."

The elections demonstrated clearly that one-man rule is beyond either the legal or the illegal capabilities of the SMK. One year from now, the parliamentary elections will be decided by those 15 - 20 percent of the electorate who, like the Republican Party, did not consider it expedient to participate in the elections given that mayors and local administrators are appointed and local governing bodies have only very limited powers.

During the coming year, political parties will align themselves either with Shevardnadze or with Abashidze (or a similar pro-Russian figure) and the electorate will realize that is faced with a choice between bad and worse, if today the reformers in the ruling and opposition parties can only muster one-third of the vote between them. The isolation from political processes of pro-western democratic groups in various parties cannot be excluded.