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Analysis: Georgian Opposition Sounds Alarm Over Parliamentary Elections

(epa) Although Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili pledged during his annual address to the nation on April 23 that the May 21 parliamentary elections will be "the most fair and democratic in the history of our country," opposition parties have in recent weeks repeatedly alleged pressure on their candidates by the Georgian authorities, and attempted vote-buying by candidates representing Saakashvili's United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia.

Georgian human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar, Georgian and Western NGOs, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Election Observation Mission have likewise highlighted a variety of irregularities. Western ambassadors and visiting top-level diplomats, too, have registered concern and urged the Georgian authorities to ensure that the voting is not only free, fair, and transparent, but peaceful and not marred by violence and intimidation.

The most widely reported abuses during the election campaign have been intimidation of individual candidates or opposition party activists with the aim of coercing them to withdraw their candidacy or cease canvassing; pressure by candidates from the ruling party on local officials to secure the desired result; the distribution of cash or material goods as an inducement to vote for Saakashvili's party; and the inclusion in voter lists of people who are dead, over 110 years old or under 18, resident at nonexistent addresses, or currently serving a prison sentence and thus ineligible to vote.

Gogi Topadze, who heads the Rightist Alliance-Topadze-Industrialists election bloc, told journalists in Tbilisi on May 15 that 27 of the bloc's 28 candidates who registered to run in single-mandate constituencies have withdrawn from the race due to "very strong pressure" exerted on them by the authorities, Caucasus Press reported. Republican Party leader David Usupashvili similarly told journalists on May 7 that the authorities were pressuring party members and activists in the Kaspi and Akhmeta raions, Caucasus Press reported.

In Tsageri, the ruling party's majoritarian candidate Valeri Giorgobiani, withdrew after the nine-party United Opposition bloc made public on May 5 a tape recording in which a man tentatively identified as Giorgobiani threatened local officials with dismissal if he failed to garner 80 percent of the vote. Human rights ombudsman Subar has publicized what he termed "alarming" instances of election-related intimidation of teachers in Mestia and Chiatura, Caucasus Press reported on May 9. The Education and Science Ministry subsequently dismissed those reports as "absolutely groundless," Caucasus Press reported on May 14. But on May 17, the NGO Multinational Georgia released a statement reporting analogous cases in which teachers were pressured to persuade their colleagues to vote for President Saakashvili's National Movement.

The OSCE Election Monitoring Mission in its second interim report, posted on on May 15, said that "several" of the "numerous" allegations of intimidation it has received could be substantiated. That report further criticized election commissions and courts for not giving "due consideration" to voters' complaints and appeals. The National Democratic Institute on May 9 said it had received as of that date 34 separate complaints from six political parties, of which 20 were not backed by concrete evidence, Caucasus Press reported.

The NGO Human Rights Information and Documentation Center (HRIDC) noted in an April 14 report that the amendments to the election law passed by parliament on March 21 include one that precludes making available to the public video footage from polling stations on election day.

In interim reports on the election campaign released on May 9, Tbilisi-based NGOs, including the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association and the Georgian division of Transparency International, chronicled the distribution of cash or food products to voters by National Movement activists and highlighted extensive shortcomings in the amended election law and in the supposedly updated and corrected voters lists. The Central Election Commission earlier extended the deadline for verifying voter list entries from May 5 to May 8.

Individual opposition majoritarian candidates who checked voter lists in the constituency in which they are running likewise discovered serious discrepancies. The "Messenger" on May 7 quoted Republican party candidate Vakhtang Khmaladze, an elections expert who helped draft Georgia's first multiparty election law in 1990, as saying that at one polling station in Tbilisi's Isani district the names of 19 deceased persons remain on the voter list even though their families alerted the Central Election Commission and asked that the names be removed.

True, in a belated attempt to minimize campaign abuses, former Foreign Minister David Bakradze, who heads the National Movement's list of candidates for the 75 party-list seats, proposed on May 11 adopting a shared "code of conduct" with which all nine parties and three election blocs would comply. Only two opposition parties agreed to that suggestion, however: the nine-party opposition coalition and the Labor party rejected it, saying that the ruling party had no right to call on rivals to observe rules that it ignores itself.

That refusal only serves to highlight what a delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that visited Tbilisi in late April termed "a huge lack of trust and confidence among the political players" and in the conduct of the election campaign, according to on April 26. In light of that "dangerous" mistrust, the delegation called upon the Georgian authorities "to ensure...these elections...can muster a high public confidence, and to refrain from any action that could undermine this."

Visiting Tbilisi two weeks later, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza similarly noted on May 9 that there was "still plenty of work to do to make sure that all of the Georgian voters have full faith in the election process," reported. "It is important that the voter lists be as accurate as possible; use of administrative resources for political purposes in a way that is illegal be taken care of, addressed, and stopped; and that Georgian voters are confident that if they have complaints about the way the election was carried out, they would be able to have a fair hearing through the election commissions and through the Georgian court system," Bryza added.

Despite such warnings, two think tanks and two academic institutions have said they will proceed with plans to conduct exit polls on May 21, Caucasus Press reported on May 15. The opposition believes that the final results of the January 5 preterm parliamentary ballot, in which incumbent President Saakashvili narrowly won reelection, were skewed to conform very closely with exit polls that did not reflect accurately the allocation of votes. Defeated presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze appealed to voters on May 8 to boycott exit polls during the parliamentary election.

Meanwhile, the NGO For Transparent Elections has summarized the findings of a survey of 1,125 voters conducted in 10 districts of Georgia from May 11-12, Caucasus Press reported on May 13. According to that survey, the opposition coalition would garner 33.99 percent of the vote, closely followed by the United National Movement with 31.56 percent; the newly created Christian-Democratic Movement with 11.83 percent; the Labor Party (9.29 percent); the Republican Party (7.58 percent); the Rightist Alliance-Topadze-Industrialists (1.66 percent); the Christian-Democratic Alliance (1.07 percent); the bloc uniting the Traditionalists, Our Georgia, and the Women's Party (0.97 percent); Georgian Politics (0.58 percent); the Radical-Democratic Party of Georgia (0.29 percent); the Union of Sportsmen of Georgia (0.19 percent); and Our Country (0.9 percent). A rival poll of 1,200 voters conducted on behalf of the ruling National Movement between April 14-20 gave that party 44 percent, compared with only 12 percent for the opposition coalition, the "Georgian Times" reported on May 12.

Speaking at a preelection rally in Tbilisi on May 18 attended by between 10,000 and 20,000 people, Gachechiladze warned that the opposition will congregate in central Tbilisi late on May 21 after the polls close and "force" the authorities to announce the "real" results of the elections, reported.

Serious procedural violations in the vote and vote count would effectively demolish Georgia's hopes of being offered a Membership Action Plan at the meeting of NATO foreign ministers scheduled for December 2008.

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