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Georgia: President Likely To Remain Unaffected By Election Setback

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze lost ground to the opposition in Sunday's (2 November) parliamentary election, forfeiting the working majority he had in the legislature. The polls are considered a first step in the transition to a new rule after the veteran leader steps down in two years. Analysts, however, believe Shevardnadze has enough resources at his disposal to make the best of his recent setback.

Prague, 4 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze suffered an apparent setback in the 2 November parliamentary elections, although the pro-government For a New Georgia bloc made a much stronger showing than expected.

Partial returns released in mid-afternoon today by the Central Election Commission show that -- with more than half the votes counted -- 26 percent of Georgian voters cast their ballots for Shevardnadze's party. That was much higher that what opinion surveys and political analysts had predicted.

For a New Georgia garnered more votes than any other single party but less than the total taken by its rivals. Tallies put at around 70 percent the total number of votes garnered by Georgia's main opposition groups.

Under such circumstances, the next legislature looks set to be dominated by Shevardnadze's opponents. But that does not necessarily mean the veteran leader will have a rough ride in the 18 months or so before the 2005 presidential election.

The 75-year-old president -- who has ruled Georgia for the past 11 years -- has repeatedly said he will not seek a third term when his mandate expires. Shevardnadze is expected soon to designate a potential successor who might ensure continuity of power in the small Southern Caucasus republic. The opposition, in turn, sees the parliamentary polls as the first step toward evicting the ruling team from power.

Addressing reporters yesterday in Tbilisi, Shevardnadze did not seem particularly upset by the outcome of the polls. On the contrary, he sounded rather compliant toward the opposition. "Today, I made a first announcement, saying that I am ready to cooperate with any force -- from the opposition or otherwise -- that [will be] represented in parliament," he said. "I am convinced that all these parties are interested in breaking the deadlock in parliament."

In comments made earlier yesterday during his traditional weekly radio interview, the Georgian leader expressed hope that the next legislature -- which he said is set to represent nearly all of Georgia's political spectrum -- would devote more time to lawmaking than its predecessor.

Mikhail Vignanskii is the editor in chief of the Tbilisi-based news agency Prime News and also serves as a correspondent for Russia's "Vremya novostei" daily. He said Shevardnadze has enough political clout to strike a deal with his opponents and turn his apparent setback to his own profit.

"I attended Shevardnadze's press briefing [on 3 November], and one of his remarks particularly struck me. He said he had enough political wisdom to find a common language with his adversaries. And this is certainly something one cannot deny him. He is able to turn friends into foes. Likewise, he is able to turn foes into friends when he deems it necessary," Vignanskii said.

Some of the country's main opposition leaders are former members of the Union of Citizens of Georgia, Shevardnadze's former power base, who split with the president in recent years.

This is the case for Davit Gamkrelidze, the chairman of the New Rightists party; former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, one of the leaders of the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition; and Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili, the leader of the National Movement-Democratic Front group (EMDP).

Updated partial results show EMDP came in second in the 2 November polls with nearly 24 percent of the vote. Saakashvili, however, claims victory, accusing Shevardnadze's team of stealing the election.

In preliminary assessments of the vote, international election observers yesterday criticized the Georgian leadership over irregularities linked to inaccurate voter lists, but stopped short of stronger language.

Other opposition parties set to enter parliament include the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition -- which takes it name from parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze -- the leftist Labor Party, the pro-business New Rightists, and the Democratic Revival Union, the party led by Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze. Another opposition party, Industry Will Save Georgia, is currently just below the 7 percent barrier required to win parliamentary seats and could eventually make its way into the legislature.

Although technically in the opposition, Revival has often collaborated with Shevardnadze and could likewise side with pro-government lawmakers in the next legislature.

Some Georgian political experts generally believe such a fragmented opposition is unlikely to threaten Shevardnadze's power. All the more so, they point out, because Shevardnadze does not necessarily need to exert immediate control over the legislature.

Temur Yakobashvili, who is the vice president of a Tbilisi-based think tank known as the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, shares this assessment. "The main question here is whether Shevardnadze at the present stage needs control over parliament," he said. "Personally, I don't think his agenda requires him to have [absolute] majority [in parliament]. His main concern now will be to ensure that the [next] legislature does not vote laws that run contrary to his policy. I see in the current balance of forces a possibility for Shevardnadze to take steps -- preventive steps -- so that such laws are not voted."

There is widespread speculation in the Georgian capital that -- apart from Abashidze's Revival -- Shevardnadze may strike a tactical alliance with the left-wing Labor Party, whose leader, Shalva Natelashvili, has said he will run for president in two years' time.

The Labor Party, which is particularly popular among Georgia's poorest constituents, came in third in the 2 November polls with roughly 14 percent of the vote. But Yakobashvili argues that popular support for Labor is unlikely to increase by the 2005 presidential polls and that he therefore sees potential for an alliance between Natelashvili and Shevardnadze.

"Even before being elected to parliament, Labor leaders had said they were ready to cooperate with everyone depending on the issues at stake. Should one issue or another suit them, they would be ready to collaborate with any of Georgia's political forces, including the pro-presidential bloc. I, therefore, believe the probability of such a collaboration is quite high," Yakobashvili said. Unlike other opposition groups, Labor has not questioned the outcome of the polls.

Journalist Vignanskii also believes an alliance between pro-government lawmakers and Labor deputies is possible and would give Shevardnadze enough leverage to push through any important reforms in the legislature. "In my opinion -- and this is also the view of some of my colleagues and political analysts here -- it is very likely that, depending on the interests of various opposition groups, Shevardnadze will be able to get a temporary majority in parliament that will allow him to reach key decisions over the [chairmanships] of parliamentary committees, the election of the parliament speaker and his, or her, deputies, the national budget and, even more importantly, parliamentary approval of the appointment of ministers," he said.

Under the present constitution, the president nominates government ministers who are approved by parliament. Shevardnadze has long floated the idea of introducing a prime minister, who would replace the speaker of parliament as the second most important figure in the state.

Some experts believe the yet-to-be-created premiership would serve as a springboard for any would-be presidential contender backed by Shevardnadze. Others suspect that introducing the post of prime minister would only allow Shevardnadze to deflect criticism of his economic policies. Shevardnadze made it clear before the election that he would once again raise this issue in consultations with the new legislature.

Some opposition groups -- such as the Labor Party and the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition -- also advocate the creation of a government headed by a prime minister, but for different reasons. They mainly see it as a way to reduce Shevardnadze's powers and increase the influence of parliament over Georgian politics.

Prime News Editor in Chief Vignanskii believes that, pending the possible introduction of a premiership, Shevardnadze will have to make some concessions to his opponents. "If one takes into account preliminary election tallies -- and there is no reason to believe they will change dramatically -- the next government is bound to be a coalition government," he said. "The only question is whether members of Saakashvili's team will agree to be seated at the same table with Shevardnadze's ministers. This issue will probably become the focus of a political bargaining whose outcome -- as always in Georgia -- is impossible to predict."

Yakobashvili, by contrast, does not see any immediate prospect of a coalition government emerging from the election. Yet, he said the issue may surface if Shevardnadze manages to push through his constitutional reform. "The issue of a premiership may prompt opposition parties to collaborate with Shevardnadze," he said, "provided they get portfolios in the new cabinet of ministers."