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Georgia: Internal Divisions Over Validity Of Vote Threaten To Split Opposition, Dilute Protests

Claiming victory in last weekend's legislative polls, Georgia's main opposition leaders are calling on their supporters to take to the streets to protest an election they say was fraudulent. But the movement is already running out of steam, as other opposition groups seem unwilling to endorse such charges.

Prague, 5 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition supporters today demonstrated in Tbilisi for the second consecutive day to protest the outcome of the 2 November legislative election they claim was stolen by pro-government candidates.

B-y midday, hundreds of demonstrators had gathered peacefully in front of the city's concert hall to demand a recount. The crowd dispersed rapidly, however, as opposition leaders left the capital to tour their constituencies. A pro-opposition rally was also held today in the city of Telavi.

Georgia's Prime News news agency says demonstrators are scheduled to convene later today on Tbilisi's Liberty Square.

Interior Ministry troops and police officers have cordoned off the government headquarters to prevent demonstrators from approaching the building where President Eduard Shevardnadze has his office.

Last night, some 3,000 people demonstrated in front of Tbilisi's City Hall to demand that the country's leading opposition party be officially declared the winner of the election.

Protesters said they would give election officials 14 hours to release what they believe are the actual results of the vote, otherwise threatening to demand Shevardnadze's resignation. Smaller peaceful protests were held in the cities of Zugdidi, Gori, Zestafoni, and Samtredia.

In a televised address last night, Shevardnadze said he has no intention of stepping down and urged his opponents not to let street violence erupt: "I am used to hearing people call for my resignation, and no one should try to intimidate me. Everyone should know that the use of force against the state will be punished by law. I do not wish that, however, and [I believe] we should all work together."

The 75-year-old leader also rejected opposition claims that the vote was rigged and said anyone questioning the outcome of the polls should file a complaint with the country's judiciary or election officials.

Early today, members of Georgia's National Security Council met to discuss the postelection situation. Addressing reporters prior to the meeting, National Security Minister Valeri Khaburdzania said he does not expect any violence.

"I believe all sides have [so far] shown common sense, and I am sure everyone will accept the final results of the vote, whatever they are," Khaburdzania said.

Partial tallies released by the Central Election Commission show the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia coalition came first in the polls with more than one-quarter of the vote.

That was much higher than 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.

Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili's National-Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP) came second with roughly 24 percent of the votes. The left wing Labor Party, the coalition of parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, and the pro-business New Rights Party had returns ranging from 8 percent to 15 percent.

By late afternoon today, the Democratic Revival Union of Ajar leader Aslan Abashidze had recovered after slipping below the 7 percent vote barrier required to enter parliament. Revival's final tally, however, is expected to rise significantly after votes in the autonomous republic of Ajara are counted.

Only these six parties have so far overcome the threshold.

In all, 22 groups are vying for seats in the legislature, where more than half (150) of the 235 deputies are elected from party lists under a proportional system. The remaining 85 lawmakers are elected from single-mandate constituencies under a majoritarian system.

EMDP, the Burjanadze-Democrats coalition, and the small pro-Russia Ertoba (Unity) Party are accusing the government of massive vote rigging. Addressing reporters yesterday at a joint press briefing with Saakashvili and Ertoba leader Jumber Patiashvili, Burjanadze reiterated claims that the opposition had won the election.

"I would like to emphasize that the issue is not whether such-or-such party overcame the 7 percent barrier [to enter parliament]. The main issue is who of the opposition or the authorities won the election? As you probably noticed, until yesterday, we did not say a word because we thought the opposition had won. We know for sure that [our coalition] performed much better than what has been officially announced, but since we thought the opposition had won, we were closing our eyes to what was going on. But when we finally understood that the opposition would end up with a minority of seats in parliament, we decided to activate steps," Burjanadze said.

Political analysts in Tbilisi believe that when all votes are counted -- including those of majoritarian deputies -- opposition parties will win more than one-third of the seats in parliament. They also say the apparent setback suffered by For a New Georgia is unlikely to affect Shevardnadze, who may strike tactical alliances with Revival and, possibly, the Labor Party.

Labor, which came third in the election with more than 14 percent of the votes, has already said that it could cooperate with the government on certain issues.

Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili today said he does not intend to join forces with Saakashvili and Burjanadze in staging street protests. He also accused leaders of the Burjanadze-Democrats and EMDP coalitions of colluding with the government.

Davit Gamkrelidze, the chairman of the New Rights opposition party, yesterday likewise dissociated himself from Burjanadze and Saakashvili, saying he has no reason so far to believe the vote was rigged.

"To whirl one's fists about is useless. We should all wait for the final outcome of the vote, which will be announced on the basis of reports that are being filed by polling stations and regional election commissions. We have seen some of these reports, and I do not believe the results released by the Central Election Commission do not reflect reality," Gamkrelidze said.

International election observers mandated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the polls reported numerous irregularities and said the elections fell short of many international standards.

In a preliminary assessment of the vote released on 3 November, the OSCE mission noted that delays and confusion over voter lists had "contributed to a lack of public confidence in the governmental and parliamentary authorities' capacity to manage an effective and transparent election process."

However, international observers have not confirmed media reports and opposition claims suggesting massive electoral fraud.

In a statement released yesterday, the Tbilisi-based International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy -- a nongovernmental watchdog group -- said it documented what it calls cases of "massive ballot stuffing," especially in Ajara and the Kvemo-Kartli region. However, the group said there was no "overall falsification" of the vote.

The United States, which mediated between the government and the opposition prior to the election, yesterday expressed concern at reports that the vote-counting had briefly stopped the night before.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told journalists that U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles raised this issue with Georgian officials and urged them to ensure a quick and democratic outcome: "Our goal remains a free and fair election, and we are focusing our efforts on ensuring an honest count in a timely way."

Vote counting is expected to end by tomorrow evening.