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Georgia: Fragmented Political Scene Gears Up For Crucial Local Poll

Voters in the Southern Caucasus state of Georgia are expected to go to the polls on 2 June to elect representatives to more than 1,000 city and town councils. Although the election is limited to local governing bodies, Georgia's so-called "young reformers" -- leaders of emerging political opposition groups -- hope to use it as a springboard for next year's parliamentary poll and, beyond that, for the 2005 presidential ballot.

Prague, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Political parties in the South Caucasus state of Georgia are gearing up for a landmark local poll that will mark the first test for new opposition leaders and groups ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

The poll, scheduled for 2 June, will also demonstrate in theory how much support 74-year-old President Eduard Shevardnadze still enjoys in a country beset by corruption, economic hardships, and decade-long territorial disputes with separatist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Although more than 20 parties and political movements are competing for seats in 1,300 city and town councils, or "sakrebulo," the poll is unlikely to enhance the authority of Georgia's local governing bodies.

Levan Ramishvili is the head of the Liberty Institute, a Tbilisi-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to defending human rights and democracy. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said previous local polls held in 1998 -- the first such elections in Georgia's post-Soviet history -- showed that local governing bodies have somewhat limited powers.

"Out of 1,300 self-governing bodies [that exist in Georgia], only seven have a budget of their own. In addition, it appears that [the heads of] two out of these seven bodies -- [the mayors of] Tbilisi and Poti -- are not being elected [they are appointed by the president]. This is how the first level of self-governance looks. On the second level, the district level, legislative assemblies are not being elected directly. They are composed of representatives elected to the first level of self-governing bodies. As for the heads of regional administrations, they are being appointed by the president," Ramishvili said.

Yet, Ramishvili believes the importance of Sunday's ballot should not be underestimated. This, he and other political analysts say, is because it will serve as a test for Georgia's fragmented political landscape.

Mikhail Vignanskii is the editor in chief of Prime News, an independent Georgian news agency, and the Tbilisi correspondent of the Moscow-based "Vremya novostei" daily. He told our correspondent he sees the upcoming local election as a rehearsal for the next parliamentary poll, scheduled for November 2003. "Of course, one cannot regard the current election to local governing bodies as anything other than an attempt on the part of political parties to measure their respective strengths ahead of next year's parliamentary poll and, beyond that, as a preparation for the 2005 presidential election and to the post-Shevardnadze era in general. So, if one speaks about Georgia's future, what we will have [on Sunday] are primaries in the true sense," Vignanskii said.

Among the main contenders in the 2 June poll -- which will be combined with parliamentary by-elections in some constituencies -- are members of 34-year-old former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili's National Movement-Democratic Front, an umbrella organization that groups several opposition parties. Members of Shevardnadze's former power base, the Citizens' Union of Georgia, or SMK, will also figure in the elections.

In September last year, Shevardnadze announced that he was stepping down from the party's chairmanship. The decision led to a split in the SMK parliamentary group, with one faction maintaining its support for the head of state and the other swearing allegiance to former parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania.

Formerly a close associate of Shevardnadze, the 38-year-old Zhvania resigned from his post in November last year after having chaired the parliament for more than six years. The then-No.2 man in Georgia's state apparatus presented his resignation as a response to Shevardnadze's decision to dismiss the entire government. That decision came amid a series of street protests in Tbilisi prompted by an alleged police raid on the Rustavi-2 independent television channel.

Tentative talks between Zhvania and Saakashvili to join forces have so far produced no tangible result, and both so-called young reformers -- who are equal favorites of the West and generally seen as Shevardnadze's most serious challengers -- are now running under different political banners.

On 3 May, the Tbilisi district court suspended the registration of Zhvania's dissident SMK faction, thus effectively barring the group from Sunday's poll. As a result, the pro-presidential faction -- led by Levan Mamaladze, Shevardnadze's representative in the southern Kvemo Kartli region -- will be the only party authorized to present candidates under the name of SMK.

Zhvania and his supporters have since announced plans to run on the ticket of the Christian-Conservative Party, an obscure nationalist formation that political experts believe is unlikely to help Zhvania garner wide support among Georgia's 4 million-strong population.

Critics have often reproached Zhvania for being too soft on Shevardnadze and for remaining in the president's shadow even after his much-publicized resignation. Addressing supporters on 28 May, Zhvania said that, for him, the SMK was dead, thus raising speculation that he might have decided to sever all remaining ties with his former protector.

Yet some political analysts warn that all may not be over between Zhvania and Shevardnadze. In comments reported on 17 May by the British-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, former Republican Party chairman Ivlian Khaindrava said the two men could reunite in the future "if they find they need each other."

By contrast, other analysts believe Zhvania and other opposition leaders, such as Saakashvili, could overcome their differences and unite in some sort of coalition after the 2 June poll. A third possible scenario would see the creation of two or three political groups, one of which Shevardnadze would eventually turn into a platform for his own candidates in next year's legislative election.

As journalist Vignanskii pointed out, the blurred line currently separating Georgia's political parties further complicates the picture and makes it even more difficult to speculate on Zhvania's political future. "Personally, I doubt Zhvania will become again the close and influential man he used to be in Shevardnadze's command -- say, among the five top leaders. Nothing is impossible, of course. In any case, until recently, the opposition was the ruling party. Everything is so confused that it is difficult to say who really is in the opposition. Rather, there is an old opposition and a new opposition, but there is no longer a ruling party. This is an absurd situation. But, to go back to Zhvania, many politicians are hastening to bury him politically. They say he has no political future. Honestly, I have some doubts, because [Zhvania] is not the kind of politician who would easily surrender," Vignanskii said.

In contrast to Zhvania, parliament member Saakashvili has always been perceived as one of Shevardnadze's fiercest critics. The former minister, who relinquished his justice portfolio last September amid claims that he could no longer work with the current head of state, has been campaigning under the slogan "Georgia without Shevardnadze."

Saakashvili, who has set his sights on the chairmanship of the 49-seat Tbilisi city council, has said that, in his view, Shevardnadze's government "represents absolute despair and instability." Saakashvili has made the fight against corruption one of his main campaign themes.

Saakashvili's National Movement is an anomalous organization that comprises such disparate groups as the Republican Party, the Democratic Elections for Georgia movement, and even some supporters of late nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. But even so, the former justice minister says he is confident about the outcome of Sunday's ballot.

Recent opinion surveys show that up to one-fourth of Tbilisi voters who intend to go to the poll would cast their ballots for Saakashvili's movement. As for Zhvania, the surveys also indicate that he would perform rather poorly, with around 8 percent of the vote, although analysts warn that his rating is steadily rising.

Yet, analysts point out that the biggest challenge for all contenders will be to convince their constituents to go to the polls at all.

Turnout in the 1998 local elections dipped as low as 30 percent. Two years later, only 20 percent of voters went to the polls to re-elect Shevardnadze amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud.

Analysts say past experience does not suggest that turnout will be high on Sunday, although new circumstances may stimulate voters.

Liberty Institute's Ramishvili believes the presence of several opposition candidates may give citizens the impression of having a real choice for the first time in years. Likewise, the fact that most candidates have set their sights on the next parliamentary election and have therefore chosen to campaign on national, rather than local, issues might boost Sunday's turnout.

"Since the previous local poll in 1998, voters have been somehow disappointed in self-governing bodies. Therefore, if the [current] electoral slogans had focused on more or less local issues, one might expect an extremely low turnout. But the fact that the main electoral slogans have been linked to issues connected with global politics may influence the [interest of the electorate in voting]," Ramishvili said.

Opinion surveys show that turnout could reach between 40 and 45 percent -- marked progress compared with previous polls. But some analysts say the still relatively low figure also reflects the disillusionment of Georgia's voters who, on the one hand, have seen very little improvement in their daily lives since the previous local election and, on the other hand, suspect the results of Sunday's poll will be falsified anyway.

Prime News on 30 May posted on its website results of an opinion survey conducted among its subscribers showing that 92 percent of them believe the ballot will be marred by massive fraud. Only 6 percent of the agency's respondents think the election will be fair.

Vignanskii said a 40-45 percent turnout would still be a poor showing for Georgia's traditionally politicized electorate, which used to go to the polls en masse during the years immediately following the country's independence in 1991. Explaining dwindling interest among the country's voters, Vignanskii said, "Politics are fine, but people need to feed themselves."