The outgoing parliament amended the Georgian Constitution in March in an apparent bid to strengthen the ruling Unified National Movement's chances of preserving its substantial majority. But recent opinion polls suggest that while it is the most popular of the three blocs and nine parties registered to participate in the ballot, it will not garner even 50 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, even before the campaign got under way, the opposition alleged malpractice on the part of the National Movement. It is now demanding the resignation of Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili, fearing he has orders to rig the outcome of the ballot in favor of the ruling party.
The Georgian political landscape has undergone a major transformation over the past eight months. In late September, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili leveled accusations of cronyism, turning a blind eye to corruption, and considering the assassination of political rivals against incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili. Okruashvili was promptly arrested and pressured to withdraw those allegations, which he did.
But they resonated to such an extent with much of the political opposition that 10 opposition parties swiftly aligned in a National Council and on October 17 unveiled a manifesto that repeated many of Okruashvili's criticisms of the Saakashvili regime. It characterized the social, political and economic situation in Georgia as "grave," accused Saakashvili and his "corrupt team" of "usurping power," and claimed that "political terror...reigns, and basic human rights and freedoms are neglected." It called on Georgians to close ranks and elect in free and fair elections in the spring of 2008 a new leadership that would enjoy public trust and prove capable of tackling the serious problems the country faces. It further enumerated 12 "fundamental principles" to which the 10 signatories pledged to adhere.
On November 2, up to 40,000 people attended a peaceful protest demonstration in Tbilisi convened by the National Council in support of its demands. The rally continued for five days; early on November 7, police and security forces armed with shields, batons and guns used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the protesters, reportedly injuring hundreds of them. Blaming Russia for allegedly orchestrating the protests, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency and suspended broadcasting by the independent Imedi television station, then on November 8 he scheduled a preterm presidential ballot for January 5.
The National Council selected as its joint candidate to oppose Saakashvili in that ballot former businessman Levan Gachechiladze. The election campaign was marred by acrimonious exchanges and repeated opposition allegations that the authorities and the pro-state media unfairly favored Saakashvili, who cast himself as the sole politician capable of "saving" Georgia and warned of political chaos and economic collapse in the event of an opposition win. The actual voting and vote count were likewise deemed flawed by international observers, who nonetheless conceded that the irregularities were not on a scale that could have reduced Saakashvili's share of the vote (53.47 percent) to less than the 50 percent plus one required to avoid a runoff.
Gachechiladze, however, who according to official returns polled second of the seven candidates with 25.69 percent, alleged that Saakashvili polled no more than 44 percent while he himself polled some 36 percent, according to "The Times" on January 8. Gachechiladze accordingly called, without success, for a runoff between himself and Saakashvili, but dropped that demand following talks in Tbilisi with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, after which the National Council decided to treat the upcoming parliamentary election as a de facto second round and vote of confidence in Saakashvili's team. At the same time, they repeatedly stressed that they consider Saakashvili an illegitimate president and would under no circumstances agree to any "compromise" he might propose.
The tensions between the authorities and the National Council have been compounded over the past three months by the constitutional amendments pushed hurriedly through parliament in early March, and by the authorities' rejection of a list of opposition demands unveiled in late January and which gave rise to protracted and acrimonious discussions with then-parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whom opposition representatives repeatedly accused of going back on her word. Thus, for the opposition at least, the upcoming parliamentary election is not about ideology, but ousting a leadership widely perceived as corrupt, duplicitous, self-serving, and chronically unable to deliver on its promises. The nine-party United Opposition-National Council-New Rightists bloc warned in early April that a mass uprising is "inevitable" if the election outcome is rigged in favor of the pro-Saakashvili National Movement, according to civil.ge on April 8.
In a thoughtful and perceptive analysis posted last month on opendemocracy.net, Jonathan Wheatley listed four key hallmarks of the current stage of "suspended transition to democracy" in many former Soviet republics, including Georgia. He argued that the presidency "appears to have taken over many of the functions of the old Communist Party.... It has been proximity to the president -- whether formally through membership of the presidential administration, or informally through close personal connections -- that determines the political influence of an individual bureaucrat. The presidential networks (again both formal and informal) have more influence than either parliament or even the cabinet of ministers, undermining any checks and balances that can be brought to bear on the presidency." The "party of power" that has coalesced around the president also shows marked similarities to the CPSU.
Second, opposition parties tend for the most part to be "non-ideological" and serve as a vehicle for "charismatic leaders," many of whom are themselves former, now alienated members of the "party of power."
Third, the lack of an institutionalized party system on the one hand, and the vast political and economic interests at stake on the other, make elections "a zero-sum game and therefore prone to falsification. 'Parties of power' will not survive a period of opposition and the bureaucrats that manage elections at local level depend on the president and the ruling party for their positions. There is therefore a very strong incentive for these bureaucrats to 'deliver the correct result' in elections." Thomas de Waal made the same point in a recent analysis in the "National Interest," affirming that "being in opposition in these countries is a miserable lot: ceding power to your opponents means risking being stripped of everything and perhaps going to jail or into exile." That fear is so great, de Waal continued, that, paradoxically, the authorities may resort to vote rigging that calls into question the validity of the election outcome even in circumstances where the incumbent stood an excellent chance of victory without it, as was the case in Georgia in January 2008 (and, although he does not cite that example, in Azerbaijan in 2003).
Fourth, "a consolidated democracy requires the agreement of most, if not all political players on the fundamental rules of the game: in other words the constitution and electoral laws." In Georgia, however, Saakashvili and the parliament have repeatedly amended, in some cases without prior consultation with the opposition, both the constitution (five times between 2004-07) and the election law to suit and further their immediate political agenda.
On January 15, Gachechiladze said he hoped the National Council would participate in the upcoming parliamentary ballot as "a single, united strong opposition coalition" that would encompass not only the nine-member National Council but also the Labor party, the New Rightists and others. Those hopes proved unfounded, however; although the New Rightists aligned in a bloc with the National Council, the Republican Party decided to quit the Council, of which it was one of the original members, and run separately in the election.
The findings of a survey of 1,200 people conducted in late April by the New Region agency registered 38 percent support for Saakashvili's United National Movement, followed by the National Council-New Rightists (32 percent), the Republican party (12 percent), the Labor party (7 percent), with the remaining parties or blocs enjoying no more that 1-3 percent backing.
Even before the election campaign kicked off, the opposition alleged foul play on the part of the authorities, accusing the United National Movement of submitting a revised list of candidates to the CEC after the deadline for doing so on April 21 in light of Burjanadze's withdrawal from the ballot at the last minute. In its interim preielection report made public on May 1, the OSCE Election Observer Mission noted that that controversy "undermined" confidence in the CEC's proclaimed strategy of ensuring the maximum transparency of the ballot, civil.ge reported. The Georgian Young Lawyers' Association on April 18 accused seven United National Movement deputies in the outgoing parliament of vote-buying, and Gogi Topadze, founder and chairman of the Industry Will Save Georgia party, announced on May 1 that his party will withdraw from the ballot unless intimidation of its candidates running in single-mandate constituencies ceases.
Such allegations are all the more potentially damaging insofar as the final declaration adopted at the NATO summit in Bucharest in early April implicitly pegged Georgia's chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting scheduled for December 2008 to the parliamentary elections being assessed as free and fair.