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Local Election Campaign Begins In Georgia

Incumbent Gigi Ugulava is the favorite in the Tbilisi mayoral race, seen by many as predicting a front-runner for the presidency.
Incumbent Gigi Ugulava is the favorite in the Tbilisi mayoral race, seen by many as predicting a front-runner for the presidency.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on March 30 formally scheduled local elections for May 30, the constitutionally specified deadline. A total of 36 political parties and movements subsequently applied to the Central Election Commission to register to participate in the ballot.

Among the most prominent parties, only the opposition Labor Party, the National Forum, and former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia have opted not to field candidates in the local elections. Irakli Minashvili of the National Forum announced in October 2009 that the party sees "no sense" in doing so as local councils are dependent on the state budget and therefore cannot act independently, Caucasus Press reported on October 6, citing the daily "Akhali taoba."

Burjanadze for her part released a statement on December 28 saying that that as all Georgia's problems stem from the person of the president, participating in the local elections is pointless as it cannot change anything, Caucasus Press reported.

In addition, five political parties -- Saakashvili's United National Movement and the opposition Christian Democratic Movement, the National Democratic Party, the Movement for a Just Georgia, and Democratic Georgia -- have signaled their intention to contest by-elections on May 30 for three vacant parliament seats in Tbilisi, Gurjaani, and Ozurgeti, Caucasus Press reported on April 2, citing the daily "Rezonansi."

The Georgian authorities have repeatedly stressed their determination to ensure that the elections are, and are internationally perceived as, free and fair. But there have already been numerous reports of errors and discrepancies in voter lists, giving rise to apprehension that the outcome of the vote may be manipulated.

For example, on March 24, a member of the small extra-parliamentary opposition party We Ourselves, told journalists the party mobilized a team of 300 people who checked voter lists containing a total of some 100,000 names in all Tbilisi's 10 districts and in Rustavi, Telavi, Zestaponi, Chokhatauri, Kobuleti, and Khashuri. He said 281 voters were found to have been excluded from the voter register, the names of 175 deceased voters had not been removed from lists, 711 voters are abroad, and 23 are in prison; there were a further 149 unspecified inaccuracies, Caucasus Press reported.

On March 31, Irakli Melashvili, one of the leaders of the opposition National Forum, told a press conference that the number of registered voters today -- 3.6 million -- is exactly the same as in 1990, although over 1 million Georgians are known to have left the country since 1992 to work abroad, Caucasus Press reported.

And on April 2, the Rustavi chapter of the Christian Democrats announced that after checking only 25 percent of voter lists, they had already identified 120 deceased persons still registered as active voters, 2,580 voters who do not live at the location listed in the registers as their permanent address, and 1,298 voters listed as resident in Georgia who are currently living abroad, Caucasus Press reported.

In addition, one would-be opposition candidate in the eastern district of Telavi from former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli's Movement for a Just Georgia has been stripped of his social allowances, Caucasus Press reported on April 5.

The local elections in Georgia's regions are, however, inevitably overshadowed by the vote in Tbilisi for mayor and the city council. Not only is this the first time that the mayor of the capital will be elected in a popular vote. Many observers believe that the winning candidate will automatically become the front-runner in the January 2013 presidential election, in which Saakashvili is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.

There are thus obvious tactical and strategic advantages in closing ranks and fielding a single candidate to challenge incumbent Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, who is a close associate of Saakashvili. The most weighty of those advantages is that under amendments to the election law passed late last year, the threshold for victory is just 30 percent of the vote -- meaning that if the vote is split among half a dozen or more candidates, 30 percent plus one vote is sufficient for victory if all other candidates garner less than that.

Despite that basic arithmetic, five opposition parties have already nominated their candidates for mayor. They are former Georgian State Oil Company head Giorgi Chanturia, nominated by the Christian Democratic group, part of the parliament minority faction; former lawmaker and beer magnate Gogi Topuria, co-founder of the Industry Will Save Georgia group; Nika Ivanishvili, who served in the early 1990s as head of the traffic police and recently founded his own People's Democratic Party; Tamaz Vashadze, who served briefly as Tbilisi mayor in the early 1990s; and David Yakobidze, who served as finance minister in the early 1990s when Eduard Shevardnadze was still president. Yakobidze was nominated by parliament member Gia Tortladze's Democratic Party. Tortladze heads the Powerful Georgia minority parliament faction.

Other opposition parties have for months been engaged in sometimes acrimonious discussions of whether and how that single candidate should be selected. The disagreement hinges on the person of Noghaideli, whose repeated visits to Moscow and unequivocal espousal of dialogue with the Russian leadership, have led President Saakashvili to denounce him as a traitor to his country.

Noghaideli's movement, together with the People's Party, the Conservative Party, and the smaller and less well-known Party of the Future, Christian Georgia, and Mamulishvilebi (Sons of the Fatherland), propose selecting their candidate for Tbilisi mayor by means of "primaries," and candidates for the 50-seat city council by means of a public opinion poll. The choice for mayor will be announced on April 9: the three candidates are Conservative co-leader Zviad Dzidziguri, People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili, and Party of the Future leader Gia Maisashvili.

Former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania, who now heads the opposition Our Georgia -- Free Democrats, held exploratory talks in late February with Noghaideli and with businessman Levan Gachechiladze, whom several opposition parties backed as their joint candidate in the January 2008 presidential election. But within days, Alasania definitively ruled out any cooperation with Noghaideli. On March 4, Alasania was nominated as the presidential candidate of the Alliance for Georgia, which unites his own party, the Republicans, and the New Rightists.

Former human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari, who aligned with Alasania last year, on March 31 unveiled a new initiative intended to secure additional opposition backing for Alasania as the candidate with the best chances of defeating Ugulava. In an article titled "Formula For Victory: Agreement, Compromise, Rationalism" published in the daily "Rezonansi," Subari reasoned that the current divisions between opposition camps render the chances of an opposition victory "very difficult." He argued that that "everyone for whom changing the government and saving the country is important should support Irakli Alasania.... That is a compromise, which is needed for the country’s interests. But at the same time...each political group has its own interests, and I believe that in order to achieve a real agreement these interests should be taken into consideration."

Subari therefore offered to withdraw his candidacy for the chairman of the Tbilisi city council in favor of any other opposition group that in return would agree to support Alasania's mayoral candidacy. The three members of the Alliance for Georgia expressed their support for that initiative.

On April 1, Subari explained to journalists that he hoped above all to enlist Gachechiladze's support, and on April 3, he and Gachechiladze met with Topadze. Topadze said after that meeting he thinks it is already too late to achieve opposition unity. He added nonetheless that if agreement is reached on a single opposition candidate, he too will support that candidate, Caucasus Press reported.

Subari and Gachechiladze then met with Noghaideli, Kukava, and Davitashvili for what Subari termed initial consultations; Gachechiladze said the intent was to "agree on the rules of the game."

Whether it will prove possible to unite major opposition parties behind Alasania at this late stage is more than doubtful. Meanwhile, the NGO Transparency International-Georgia has confirmed earlier reports that the Georgian authorities are pulling out all the stops to ensure a mayoral election victory for their candidate. In a report released on March 29, the NGO detailed what it termed an "unprecedented" 34 percent increase funding not just for the Tbilisi city council but for local councils across the country.

In Tbilisi, the additional funds are being used to finance a pensions hike and to provide pensioners with personal transport cards entitling them to reduced fares on public transport.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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