In a move that will only fuel the antagonism between the authorities and the embattled and embittered opposition, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has engineered the election as chairman of the Central Election Commission of a professional number-cruncher whom opposition parties suspect of answering to powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
Zurab Kharatishvili, 42, former head of a firm of auditors and since 2008 a member of the board of trustees of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, received 98 votes, compared with 19 for Constitutional Court judge Otar Sichinava and 36 for outgoing chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili. Tarkhnishvili reportedly withdrew his candidacy
prior to the vote on the grounds that he found it impossible to work with opposition party representatives on the commission.
Independent parliamentarian Gia Tsagareishvili termed
Saakashvili's nomination of Tarkhnishvili for a second term as chairman "a slap in the face for the whole of Georgian society." He went on to brand Sichinava and Kharatishvili clones of Tarkhnishvili.
Opposition parties for their part cast doubts on Tarkhnishvili's honesty and objectivity in light of his handling of the disputed pre-term presidential ballot in January 2008 and the parliamentary election in May of that year. In both cases, the vote was judged less than wholly free and fair. Over half the 31 deputies elected from opposition parties chose to surrender their mandates rather than participate in the working of what they termed an illegitimate parliament.
The selection of a new CEC chairman devolved upon the parliament after the opposition parties represented on the CEC failed to agree on any of the three candidates whom Saakashvili proposed. The new chairman required the endorsement of no fewer than four of the six opposition parties represented in parliament. But the Republican, Labor, and Conservative parties rejected all three candidates on January 13; the Christian Democratic Movement, We Ourselves, and the Industrialists rejected Tarkhnishvili, but withheld judgment
with regard to Sichinava and Kharatishvili.
Eka Siradze, the French-trained election specialist who heads the NGO For Fair Elections, declined to comment on her exclusion from Saakashvili's shortlist of three candidates to head the CEC. She told Caucasus Knot
it would be "incorrect and inappropriate" for her to do so, given that she and the organization she heads would have to work with whoever was finally selected to fill that position.