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Georgia: Upcoming Poll A First Step Toward Post-Shevardnadze Era

Georgians go to the polls on 2 November in a legislative election that is the first step in the transition to new rule after President Eduard Shevardnadze steps down in 2005. Analysts believe the vote is likely to produce a legislature where no party has a clear majority. There are also widespread concerns among Georgians about the possibility of postelection violence, raised by recent events in neighboring Azerbaijan.

Prague, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Voters in Georgia go to the polls on 2 November in parliamentary elections. Twenty-two parties and alliances are vying for seats, but only a few are likely to garner enough votes to enter the legislature.

The election is particularly important for President Eduard Shevardnadze, since it constitutes the first step in the transition to new rule after his mandate expires in 2005. It is equally crucial for the opposition, which sees the vote as part of its efforts to drive Shevardnadze's team from power.

The 75-year-old Shevardnadze, who has presided over Georgia for 11 years, has repeatedly said he will abide by the constitution and not seek a third term.

Ghia Nodia chairs the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (CIPDD), a Tbilisi-based nongovernmental organization that monitors civil society developments. He tells our correspondent the upcoming polls will also stand as a key test for the South Caucasus nation's state-building efforts.

He says the election "will be a way to verify whether a change of regime in Georgia is possible through polls. I have in mind, naturally, what happened in Armenia and, especially, in Azerbaijan. As events in those two countries have shown, peaceful transition is not a vain concern. Despite [what happened in neighboring countries], there is hope in Georgia that a regime change is possible through elections."

Presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan earlier this year were marred by street protests and police violence.

In his traditional Monday radio interview, Shevardnadze this week cautioned his opponents against any attempt to stage violent protests after the election. "Authorities will not let destabilization, confrontation, or violence burst into state institutions, including in election commissions. We will not allow force to spread into the streets. Order, ideal order, must be respected. I find any kind of violence inadmissible," Shevardnadze said.

On 20 October, Shevardnadze publicly approved of the harsh crackdown on street disturbances by Azerbaijan's president-elect Ilham Aliyev, raising speculations in Georgia that he, too, might consider using force against his opponents.

Some Georgian analysts say the potential for post-election unrest is high. They notably cite the increasingly confrontational tone used by one of Shevardnadze's fiercest critics, Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili.

A former justice minister and the charismatic leader of the National Movement-Democratic Front (NM-DF) party, Saakashvili has campaigned under the slogan "Georgia Without Shevardnadze" and built an image as a radical anticorruption crusader.

Saakashvili has accused the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia coalition of planning to steal the election and raised the prospect of massive street protests. Saakashvili enjoys widespread support among Georgia's impoverished population and student community.

Other opposition leaders, however, view the Tbilisi City Council chairman with suspicion and have distanced themselves from his incendiary rhetoric.

CIPDD chairman Nodia says postelection violence is unlikely in Georgia, although he believes antigovernment forces would manage to overcome their disagreements and join forces to protest the outcome of the vote in case of massive fraud.

"[How things develop] will of course depend on the outcome of the election, on the discrepancies between the [official] results and the population's [vote]. It is very likely that there will be serious irregularities and, consequently, expressions of protest. However, when I look in retrospect at the election campaign, my feeling is that the Georgian opposition is much more organized than its Azerbaijani counterpart and that it will not come to developments such as those that occurred in Baku," Nodia said.

Dismissing claims he is planning to massage the polls, Shevardnadze has pledged they will be a "model of democracy."

Georgia, which aspires to integrate into NATO in the foreseeable future, has made serious efforts to improve its democracy credentials throughout the election campaign.

Nugzar Kupreishvili works as a legal adviser for the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, a Tbilisi-based independent election watchdog. He says that despite many permanent features -- such as smear campaigns targeting both opposition and pro-government candidates -- he has noted significant progress compared to previous elections.

"[True, the present campaign] resembles previous ones by many accounts. For example, there have been elements of confrontation and scuffles in some election districts. This being said, however, the present pre-election situation differs widely from what we have had previously. This time, for example, the authorities have not attempted to bar opposition parties from campaigning as happened in [the previous legislative election of] 1999, when all kinds of obstacles, including armored vehicles, were used to prevent opposition parties from holding election rallies," Kupreishvili said.

Kupreishvili, however, says the absence of voter lists four days before the election and the interference of government officials in the election campaign have cast a shadow on improvements brought to the election code over the past few months.

Controversy over electoral rolls erupted some weeks ago when hundreds of Georgians discovered that their names had been scratched from the lists of registered voters. The Central Election Commission has promised to update all election data by tomorrow, but opposition parties claim discrepancies in voter lists testify to the government's plans to falsify the election.

Opinion surveys concur with political analysts, however, in saying that, barring massive election fraud, the pro-Shevardnadze coalition will cross the 7 percent vote barrier required to enter parliament only by a slight margin.

Five other parties are considered contenders, including Saakashvili's NM-DF; the coalition ran by parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze; the leftist Labor Party; the New Rights Party; and the Democratic Revival Union of Ajar President Aslan Abashidze -- a party that is technically in the opposition but has often cooperated with Shevardnadze.

Political expert Nodia believes none of the main contenders will garner enough votes to secure a parliamentary majority. But he says opposition parties -- including Saakashvili's NM-DF, the Burjanadze-Democrats coalition, New Rights, and the Labor Party -- may close ranks against Shevardnadze once they get into parliament.

"These parties may or may not agree, it depends," Nodia said. "Sometimes they have conflicting relations, but they can also agree on certain issues. Therefore, it is difficult to make any prediction. Yet, I think these parties may agree on a common program against Shevardnadze. I would make an exception for the Labor -- although I do not rule out that it may join the others at some point. Of course, the fact that the opposition did not unite [behind a single candidate] is a relative victory for Shevardnadze. However, the pro-government party is so unpopular that the fragmented character of the opposition is not sufficient enough to allow Shevardnadze to efficiently manipulate the disagreements [that exist among his adversaries] and turn them to his own profit."

Analysts generally expect a high voter turnout at the polls, where Georgians also will be voting in a referendum to reduce the number of seats in the legislature to 150 from 235. Georgia's parliament is currently made up of 150 deputies elected from party lists under a proportional system and 85 lawmakers elected from single-mandate constituencies.

Lawyer Kupreishvili says he expects up to 75 percent of voters to turn out -- an indicator he says testifies to the growing maturity of his fellow countrymen and the overall weariness generated by the present parliament.