Mikheil Saakashvili's second term as Georgian president does not expire for another three years. But the preparations for municipal elections in late May 2010, including that for Tbilisi mayor, already increasingly resemble the first stage in what promises to be a no-holds-barred fight to succeed him.
Although the Georgian Constitution does not currently permit one person to serve three consecutive presidential terms, the television station Imedi reported
on January 4 that 60 percent of respondents in a poll conducted by the U.S. National Democracy Institute said they are in favor of Saakashvili serving a third presidential term.
The Tbilisi mayoral election is crucial for several reasons. First, the city has a population of some 1.48 million, which is approximately one-third of the total Georgian population. So any mayoral candidate who garnered a majority in Tbilisi in a ballot that international monitors designated free and fair would be well-placed to parlay that victory into a presidential win in 2013.
Second, under the planned revision of the territorial-administrative structure of the country, Tbilisi will have greater powers and autonomy than any other region. Avtandil Demetrashvili, who heads a commission that has drafted the relevant constitutional amendments, said
in August 2009 that Georgia will be "a unitary state with elements of autonomy" in which the powers granted to individual regions will be directly proportional to the size of the population.
On December 28, the Georgian parliament passed in the third and final reading controversial amendments
to the election law, including one that lowers to 30 percent the number of votes a candidate needs for an outright first-round victory. The opposition had argued unsuccessfully that the minimum should be no lower than 45 percent.
Zurab Abashidze of Our Georgia-Free Democrats, one of three parties aligned in the Alliance For Georgia, argued that the legitimacy of a mayor who garnered less than 50 percent of the vote would always be questionable, which "would not help to defuse the political crisis
Many opposition parties are convinced that the election law amendments were enacted with the explicit aim of ensuring that incumbent Mayor Gigi Ugulava is returned to that post in the upcoming municipal ballot, and would thus be ideally placed to ensure that Saakashvili's United National Movement retains the presidency after Saakashvili's term expires.
But despite that shared apprehension, the various opposition parties are as far as ever from agreeing to close ranks behind a single candidate to run against Ugulava. In late November, the Conservative Party unveiled detailed proposals
for selecting a single challenger by means of U.S.-style "primaries" to be held in March. Party Chairman Zviad Dzidziguri told a press conference on December 25 that the opposition "has no option except to reach agreement on a single candidate."
The People's Party and former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's Movement For a Just Georgia have formally endorsed the Conservatives' proposal. Dzidziguri and People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili, a former Saakashvili ally who parted company with him in early 2004, have already signaled their intention to participate in the proposed primaries.
Noghaideli by contrast has announced that he will not run for any post in the May elections. Instead, he appears to be staking on the presidential ballot in 2013. He has recently made two highly publicized visits to Moscow to sound out senior Russian officials about the prospects for improving bilateral relations, and is reportedly planning to visit Sukhumi later this month for talks with Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh.
In addition, the daily "Akhali taoba" reported on January 5 that Noghaideli plans to form his own parliamentary faction, which will include independent legislator Petre Mamradze, who headed the State Chancellery under Saakashvili's predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze has hailed
Noghaideli's overture to Moscow as "a positive and bold step."
Other opposition parties, even though they favor the idea of fielding a single mayoral candidate, are lukewarm to the idea of selecting that candidate by means of primaries. The three-party Alliance for Georgia headed by former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania, who has also said he will run in the ballot, advocates selecting that candidate by means of public opinion polls. Former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili too has expressed reservations over holding primaries. Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze for her part advocates a total boycott of the local elections.
The one issue on which almost all opposition formations agree is the proposal
unveiled by the Labor Party in December to ask the United Nations to assume the role of Georgia's Central Election Commission and administer the May local elections. The Labor Party submitted
to the UN on January 5 a formal request to do so, which was signed by 21 opposition parties and by Levan Gachechiladze, Saakashvili's closest challenger in the January 2008 presidential ballot.
The Georgian authorities have, however, to all intents and purposes already forestalled that bid by submitting an analogous request to the European Union, Caucasus Press reported on December 30, quoting a spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze. One of the concluding recommendations of "Spotlight on Georgia," a 140-page report
released by the U.K.-based Foreign Policy Centre in July 2009, was that "in conjunction with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and, if possible the OSCE, the EU should explore the possibility of election-monitoring teams for the local polls."