The two previous ballots were characterized by what commentator Gela Vasadze describes as "Shakespearean passions," but were nonetheless unequivocally rated by the international community as free, fair, and democratic.
This time, however, the campaign has been marred by allegations of government pressure on opposition candidates in some districts to withdraw, and clashes between rival political forces. Those alleged violations resulted in expressions of concern from human rights watchdogs, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Central Election Commission chair Tamara Zhvania.
What is more, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has incurred harsh criticism from opposition politicians who construed a statement he made at a campaign rally in western Georgia as a call for rigging the outcome of the ballot in favour of Georgian Dream.
According to the NDI's interim report on the election campaign, some 400 candidates (of the 15,900+ who registered) have since withdrawn, more than 30 of them because of pressure from local police and other officials. Most of those instances of alleged pressure took place in areas of southern Georgia where the population is predominantly Armenian or Azerbaijani.
The Georgian Interior Ministry has denied any such pressure was exerted. The Prosecutor General's office investigated 80 such complaints, and stated that, in 76 of them, the candidates denied they were subjected to pressure. Criminal cases have been opened in the remaining four.
There have also been repeated violent incidents involving rival supporters of GD and the ENM, again mostly in the south (in Rustavi on May 24 and Gardabani on May 26). On some occasions, eggs were thrown, a practice that Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who chairs an interagency body tasked with ensuring the fairness of the ballot, condemned as "not characteristic of a civilized society."
Injudicious statements by Prime Minister Gharibashvili have reinforced the perception among opposition parties that Georgian Dream is now resorting, or will resort, to the kind of election malpractice that the ENM had engaged in during its decade in power. Speaking in western Georgia in late May, Gharibashvili declared that "in the local elections as in the parliamentary and presidential elections, Georgian Dream will win worthily and convincingly and will not permit the victory of any other political force in a single region or town." Gharibashvili subsequently sought to justify and rationalize that statement, explaining that he was speaking not in his capacity as premier but as a leading member of Georgian Dream.
The NDI report nonetheless commented that such statements by the prime minister "could have the effect of challenging the impartiality that election and other government authorities have worked hard to establish. They also present the risk of being misconstrued by electoral authorities as a directive to ensure the victory of the ruling party."
This week, former Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti governor Tenigiz Gunava, who is the ENM's candidate for the post of Zugdidi mayor, brought a libel suit against Gharibashvili for allegedly implicating him in the murder five years ago of Defense Ministry official Paata Kurdava.
On the plus side, the NDI report gives a positive assessment of recent amendments made to Georgia's election legislation. Among other things, they increase the number of seats on local councils allocated under the party list system and lower the threshold for representation from 5 to 4 percent, a move that will help small, nonparliamentary parties secure a voice at the local level. A related provision allows parties or blocs that receive at least 3 percent of the vote to claim reimbursement of up to 500,000 laris ($282,752) spent on campaign expenses.
In addition, the changes raise to 50 percent the minimum vote a mayoral candidate needs for a first round victory. The then ruling ENM lowered that threshold to 30 percent in run-up to the previous local elections in 2010 to facilitate the victory of its candidate for the mayor of Tbilisi.
Out of a total of 34 parties and blocs that applied to participate in the ballot, 20 parties and four blocs (including the ENM, Georgian Dream, and the Nonparliamentary Opposition comprising the New Rightists and Free Georgia) were formally registered. Two parties, former parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze's Democractic Movement-- One Georgia and Jondi Baghaturia's Kartuli Dasi (Georgian Group) subsequently withdrew their lists of candidates for local councils, but Burdjanadze's party is still fielding mayoral candidates in 10 cities jointly with the Christian Democratic Movement.
Possible EU Setback
Local elections almost invariably attract a lower voter turnout than do parliamentary or presidential ballots, and several Georgian commentators believe that these elections will not prove an exception. Whether they will corroborate Gharibashvili's assertion that the ENM is "disappearing off the radar screen" remains to be seen. A poll conducted on behalf of the NDI in mid-April found support for Georgian Dream at 48 percent, with the ENM a distant second at 15 percent; Burdjanadze's bloc and the Labor Party both rated 4 percent.
In Tbilisi, Georgian Dream's candidate David Narmania enjoyed 39 percent support followed by Nika Melia (ENM, 10 percent) and Dmitry Lortkipanidze (Burdjanadze's bloc, 9 percent), suggesting that contest may go to a second round runoff.
While the conduct of the vote is unlikely to derail the signing, scheduled for June 27, of Georgia's Association Agreement with the European Union, blatant recourse to administrative leverage to secure the landslide win that Gharibashvili predicted for Georgian Dream or violence on polling day could demolish Georgia's already dwindling hopes of being offered a MAP (Membership Action Plan) at the NATO summit in Wales in September.
-- Liz Fuller