With a maximum of three months still to go before the Tbilisi mayoral election, Georgian opposition parties' hopes to field a single candidate to challenge incumbent Mayor Gigi Ugulava are on the verge of collapse.
Intensive consultations on February 23-25 failed to bridge disagreements on two key issues: how to select that single candidate, and whether or not to include the For a Fair Georgia party headed by former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli in the consultation process.
Those two issues threaten to split the Alliance for Georgia that unites three parties: Our Georgia-Free Democrats (ChSTD), headed by former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania; the New Rightists, headed by Davit Gamkrelidze; and the Republican Party headed by David Usupashvili. The alliance originally affirmed its support
for Alasania's mayoral candidacy last September.
But speaking at a press conference
together with Gamkrelidze on February 17, Usupashvili qualified that commitment. Usupashvili said that "if anyone tries to convince us there are better options...we are ready to listen." He added that it "would not be correct on our part to go into consultations insisting that Alasania should definitely be the single opposition candidate."
The two men advocated holding consultations on a single candidate with all other opposition parties except Noghaideli's For A Just Georgia. The Georgian authorities launched a concerted campaign to vilify Noghaideli after he travelled to Moscow to explore with top Russian leaders the prospects for improving bilateral relations.
Kakha Kukava, the co-head of the Conservative Party, which together with the People's Party and For A Just Georgia espouses the idea of holding U.S.-style "primaries" to select the single opposition candidate, rejected that statement as "regrettable." He argued that "we should unite based on the formula 'all minus one' -- but that 'one' should be [President Mikheil] Saakashvili's ruling party."
Alasania for his part downplayed
on February 18 reports that the Alliance for Georgia was on the verge of disintegrating due to internal differences. He said the ideological and foreign-policy disagreements between the alliance and Noghaideli's party are "so huge" that any political alliance with For A Just Georgia is out of the question.
Four days later, however, on February 22, Alasania said
his ChSTD will act independently of the Republicans and New Rightists in the efforts to secure a consensus. He added that he should be considered the mayoral candidate of ChSTD, but not of those two parties.
Former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli has become a divisive figure.
The following day, Alasania embarked on intensive consultations with Kukava's Conservative Party and the public movement Defend Georgia! founded last year by businessman Levan Gachechiladze. Several opposition parties jointly backed Gachechiladze in the January 2008 early presidential ballot, in which according to official returns he polled second to Saakashvili with 25 percent of the vote. He is regarded as a potential candidate for the post of Tbilisi mayor, but has given no public indication whether he plans to participate in that ballot.
On February 24, Alasania, Noghaideli, Gachechiladze, and Kukava met jointly
with pro-opposition groups to discuss the selection of a single mayoral candidate. Noghaideli explained that "the mechanism of selecting a single candidate -- whether through holding primaries, or polling public opinion, or agreement between political forces, or a combination of these elements -- will be agreed through consultations which we are launching."
Alasania again defended the decision to involve Noghaideli in those consultations. "How can we achieve a victory if we isolate someone from this process?" he asked rhetorically. "Moving towards unity is not easy, but politicians should have enough responsibility to achieve this unity through negotiations and agreement that will enable us to defeat the authorities."
But two opposition parties swiftly rejected that argument. Former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, who heads the Georgia's Path party, said
on February 25 that "We should cope with this provocation very simply, very calmly; we should distance ourselves from Noghaideli.... Noghaideli's emergence in the political arena has disintegrated the opposition and discredited it."
Kakha Shartava, leader of the National Forum, which announced last year that it will not field candidates in the upcoming local elections, similarly dismissed as unacceptable his party's cooperation with any broad opposition alliance that included Noghaideli's party.
Meanwhile, no effort is being spared to ensure that Mayor Ugulava is reelected. Under the election law amendments enacted last fall
, he needs a majority of the vote in excess of 30 percent. His supporters are currently seeking to register an NGO named "Our Vote For Gigi Ugulava," and the Tbilisi municipal authorities are restructuring residents' debts for water and electricity.
It remains to be seen whether Saakashvili will seek to wrong-foot the opposition by bringing the election date forward, as he did with the parliamentary elections in May 2008.