Zurab Kharatishvili made headlines in Georgia last week by resigning as chairman of the Central Election Commission (TsSK) during the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for October 27.
Days later, Kharatishvili announced his plans to launch a new political force that would seek to unite moderates adrift in the country’s bitterly polarized political landscape.
Kharatishvili's resignation was met with consternation
and incomprehension from both the ruling Georgian Dream (KO) coalition headed by billionaire former businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili and outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM).
Parliamentarian Tina Kandelaki (Georgian Dream) branded the move "irresponsible," while Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who heads the interagency commission for fair elections, called it "regrettable," "incomprehensible," and badly-timed.
Giorgi Gabashvili of the ENM also described Kharatishvili’s decision as "incomprehensible.” He suggested that KO might have pressured Kharatishvili to step down, without explaining why the coalition should have done so. A second member of the ENM parliament-minority faction, Nugzar Tsiklauri, similarly hypothesized
that Kharatishvili quit because of pressure brought to bear by KO.
Ivanishvili, for his part, construed Kharatishvili's resignation as part of some "political intrigue" set in motion by the ENM.
Some conspiracy theorists pointed to Kharatishvili's alleged close relations with former powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom Saakashvili had named ENM secretary-general in the wake of the party's defeat by KO in last October’s parliamentary elections.
Merabishvili is currently in custody awaiting trial on charges of corruption and of perverting the course of justice in the case of four Interior Ministry officials implicated in the murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani in January 2006.
Kharatishvili was elected by parliament in January 2010 to head the TsSK for a five-year term. (He was one of three candidates Saakashvili selected for the post.) A financial auditor, he had previously served
since 2008 as one of the members of the board of the Georgian Public Broadcaster.
Both political camps praised Kharatishvili's handling of the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Tsulukiani recalled that "as the chairman of [the TsSK], [Kharatishvili] managed to establish cooperation and constructive dialogue with all the political parties," while ENM presidential candidate and former parliament chairman Davit Bakradze said Kharatishvili succeeded in organizing a democratic election that paved the way for Georgia’s first-ever peaceful transition of power. The [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's] Election Observation Mission, for its part, noted in its final report
that the CEC worked "efficiently and transparently," administering the elections "in a competent and professional manner."
What is more, according to commentator Gocha Mirtskhulava
, by successfully maintaining a balance between the two opposing forces, Kharatishvili managed to rid the TsSK of its image as an "infernal machine" that routinely rigged an election victory for the ruling party.
At his August 15 press conference, Kharatishvili deplored the polarization of present-day Georgian politics, which he described as "dominated by hate-speech."
"Everyone is engaged in a life-and-death struggle against others and everyone is striving for the destruction and condemnation of his opponent," he said. He explained
that he resigned in order to form "a new political center" in consultation with those political forces and individual politicians that are not part of the existing polarization, have "no marginal" views, and are "not radicals." He mentioned specifically the National Democratic Party headed by Bachuki Kardava, the New Rightists (AM), and the European Democrats. None of those three groups is represented in parliament.
Kharatishvili refused to be drawn as to whether he plans to run for president. He said he would decide whether or not to do so once the shape of his new movement becomes clear, which he predicted would be within two weeks. That would, however, leave him very little time to meet the deadlines
of September 7 for formally applying to the TsSK for permission to embark on the registration process, and September 17 for collecting the required minimum of 26,530 signatures in support of his bid.
Collecting those signatures could itself be problematic: a survey conducted
in June for the National Democratic Institute found that only 7 percent of respondents liked Kharatishvili, 30 percent had never heard of him, a further 30 percent had no opinion of him, while 25 percent actively disliked him.
As of August 21, a total of 36 potential candidates
had notified the TsSK of their intention to participate in the ballot, of whom only two have been formally registered.