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Georgia: Shevardnadze To Keep His Power Intact Despite Disowning Of Voters

Georgian voters went to the polls this weekend to elect their representatives to city and town councils. Partial results show that opposition parties won a landslide victory over President Eduard Shevardnadze's former power base. Yet, even though the Citizen's Union of Georgia did not garner enough votes to be represented on the Tbilisi city council, Shevardnadze's grip on the provinces apparently remains intact. The poll was marred by serious irregularities that drew severe criticism from the Council of Europe, which also expressed its frustration at the lack of local democracy in Georgia.

Prague, 5 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's 74-year-old President Eduard Shevardnadze suffered an apparent blow during local elections this on 2 June 2, with his former power base failing to be voted onto city and town councils throughout the southern Caucasus state.

The poll -- the second municipal ballot to be held since Georgia regained independence in 1991 -- was marred by irregularities and, in some places, reports of serious procedural violations.

Partial results released by the Central Electoral Commission yesterday showed that opposition parties are set to win an overwhelming majority of seats on the 49-seat Tbilisi city council."

Shalva Natelashvili's Labor Party, an outsider formation supported by controversial former warlord Dzhaba Ioseliani, came in first with almost 26 percent of the votes. Following closely behind was the National Movement-Democratic Front, another opposition group led by parliament deputy and former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, which garnered some 24.2 percent of the votes.

Among Shevardnadze's formal supporters, only Revival-21st Century -- a formation run by Aslan Abashidze, president of the southern autonomous republic of Adzhara -- overcame the 4 percent threshold necessary to be represented on the Tbilisi city council.

Only 2.5 percent of Tbilisi's 640,000 registered voters cast their ballot for the Citizens' Union of Georgia, or SMK, Shevardnadze's former power base and ruling party.

Results for the rest of the country were not immediately available, but analysts and polling institutes believe they will ultimately reflect a similar trend, with the opposition seizing a majority of seats on local councils.

Yet, Shevardnadze yesterday told Georgia's national radio that he was satisfied with the results of this weekend's election and that he was ready to work with his declared opponents "provided they would act according to the constitution."

Overall, 21 parties and groups were vying for control over Georgia's 1,300 city councils. There was no election this weekend in Adzhara, where voters will go to the polls on 16 June.

The ballot was the first test for those young politicians who emerged as leading opposition figures in the aftermath of last fall's political crisis. The so-called "young reformers" -- who, in addition to 34-year-old Saakashvili, include SMK dissident and former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania -- had made no secret of the fact they saw the 2 June poll as a rehearsal for next year's parliamentary election and, beyond that, as a preparation for the 2005 presidential ballot.

Both Saakashvili and Zhvania are equal favorites of the West and generally seen as Shevardnadze's most serious political challengers.

A one-time close associate of the president, 38-year-old Zhvania resigned from his post of parliament speaker in November last year, officially to protest Shevardnadze's decision to dismiss the government amid street protests sparked by a failed security raid on the Rustavi-2 independent television station.

Zhvania, whom the Tbilisi district court last month barred from running under the SMK banner, performed rather poorly this weekend. His candidates, who were running on the ticket of the obscure nationalist Christian-Conservative Party, garnered only 7.4 percent of the votes in Tbilisi.

By contrast, Saakashvili's performance looks much better. But in comments broadcast on Sunday night on Rustavi-2, the leader of the National Movement-Democratic Front said he would not recognize the results of the poll, which he said was marred by massive fraud.

Saakashvili's demands that the results of the ballot be canceled were not met, but yesterday, the Central Electoral Commission ordered a recounting of the votes in Tbilisi, amid protests from the Labor Party.

Ghia Nodia is the chairman of the Tbilisi-based nongovernmental Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. He told our correspondent that, in his view, this weekend's ballot was not such an overwhelming victory for Saakashvili as it might appear at first glance. "I think that [for Saakashvili,] the poll is a mix of victory and disappointment. True, with [nearly] 25 percent of the votes, he came in first [together] with the Labor Party. But he was counting on a better score. He was hoping for a more convincing mandate. Therefore, he will have to change certain things, to develop further his organization. With this level of support, he cannot win the presidential election," Nodia said.

Under Georgia's constitution, Shevardnadze -- who has already been elected president twice, in 1995 and in 2000 -- cannot seek a third term.

Since the last Soviet foreign minister took over from nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992, Shevardnadze has progressively lost support from key reformist allies who -- like Saakashvili, who has campaigned under the slogan "Georgia without Shevardnadze" -- blame him for failing to tackle corruption and alleviate the country's economic hardship despite international financial aid.

As this weekend's ballot clearly demonstrates, Shevardnadze has also lost much of his popularity among Georgia's 4 million-strong population.

Yet, political analyst Nodia said that, paradoxically, the electoral rout suffered by SMK and Revival does not mean that Shevardnadze will lose control over the southern Caucasus state. "Undoubtedly, [Shevardnadze] still has leverage to influence the situation because the bureaucratic vertical remains in his hands. The results of [Sunday's] poll have had mainly a symbolic significance because, under Georgian laws, those local governing bodies that are being elected have very little power. The real power belongs to administrative bodies that are being appointed by the president. [Shevardnadze] has consolidated the executive power in the central administration, as well as in the provinces. Yet, he has very little support [among the general population]," Nodia said.

Georgian legislation has been widely criticized for granting very limited power to local self-governing bodies.

Experts note that only seven of Georgia's city councils have their own budget. Also, the mayors of Tbilisi and of the Black Sea port of Poti are not elected, but are appointed by the president, as all regional governors are. Similarly, council members at the district level are not directly elected by voters but are handpicked from among members of municipal councils.

David Kipiani is the executive director of a Tbilisi-based nongovernmental organization Fair Elections and Democracy. In an interview with our correspondent, he said he too believes the results of this weekend's election will have very limited effects, if any, on local democracy. "In principle, one could say that Shevardnadze is losing control over the situation. But I would like to emphasize that this is true only for Tbilisi. As far as the provinces are concerned, Shevardnadze will continue to appoint the heads of self-governing bodies.... So far, he has not lost his influence in the regions," Kipiani said.

A five-member team of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe dispatched to Georgia to monitor the poll has expressed its "frustration" and "disappointment" at the large number of irregularities registered during the ballot.

In a statement issued on 3 June 3, the European observers concluded that, "in a rush to test the popular support for the various political forces before next year's parliamentary election, [Georgian authorities] were unable to provide for the basic conditions for electing genuine democratic local governments."

Speaking in Tbilisi that same day, Belgian observer Louis Roppe reminded reporters that Council of Europe member Georgia had, a few days before the poll, ratified the European charter on local self-government, a text that he said "states clearly how the local government should be organized."

Yet, Roppe argued, little progress has been made toward improving local democracy since the first local poll in 1998. He said the central government continues to exert indiscriminate control over self-governing bodies through selected appointees.

Roppe was also equally critical of Shevardnadze and his opponents for using Sunday's poll as a springboard for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential ballots. "The principle of the [European] charter [on local self-government] is that the power should be there, as close to the people as possible -- and that is on the local level. Therefore, the election could be very important. [But] we see at the same time that they were very unimportant because the local authorities do not have the competencies, the power, and the budgets to perform their proper jobs as local elected [bodies]. That is why we have the impression that the elections [this weekend] were important -- and very important -- for the politicians, but not for the people of Georgia," Roppe said.

Kipiani believes the numerous shortcomings noted over the weekend -- such as the absence of electoral lists in most constituencies -- serve as evidence of the central authorities' indifferent attitude toward local self-government. To prove his case, Kipiani cited the lack of reaction on the part of law-enforcement agencies after a group of assailants ransacked five polling stations in Zugdidi, where the results of the poll were canceled.

A new ballot will be held on 16 June in that western city, as well as in the towns of Khashuri and Sartichala, where this weekend's election was also disrupted.

In Rustavi, some 20 kilometers southeast of Tbilisi, gunmen stopped a car carrying election officials shortly after dawn on Sunday and seized some 40,000 ballot papers. A new poll will be held on 9 June in that city.

Kipiani said other less serious violations -- such as the absence of stamps or other official validation marks on ballot papers -- were reported in most polling stations.

Shevardnadze yesterday promised that these reports would be investigated, but he ruled out the invalidation of the poll. He also dismissed claims by Saakashvili and other opposition leaders of systematic vote rigging, saying they had more to gain from falsifying results than the government.

In an apparent attempt to spread confusion among his political foes, Shevardnadze also said the SMK -- of which he remains a member despite relinquishing the party's chairmanship in September last year -- would seek new allies among opposition groups ahead of next year's parliamentary ballot.

That statement seems to sustain Nodia's claims that Shevardnadze "will try to play on the differences that exist among his opponents" in the coming months.

These tactics should be made all the more easy by the fact that, as Nodia notes, no clear winner has emerged from this weekend's election, "leaving the political situation as confused as it was before the poll."

(Koba Liklikadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)