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Has Countdown To Georgia's Next Election Already Started?

Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili
Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili
Three weeks after its parliamentary election defeat , Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) is sending mixed signals.

On the one hand, its parliament deputies affirm their intention of acting as "constructive opposition" for the good of the country as a whole. On the other hand, they are clearly out to undermine and discredit the victorious Georgian Dream (KO) coalition headed by billionaire philanthropist and Prime Minister-designate Bidzina Ivanishvili, accusing its members of pressure and intimidation and criticizing the new government's program.

Meanwhile, inconsistent statements by Ivanishvili have led some to call into question his suitability as prime minister.

The newly elected parliament convened for its first session on October 21 in a glitzy new building constructed at a cost of 133.7 million laris (about $82.5 million) in Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city. One of Ivanishvili's first pronouncements after it became clear KO had won the election focused on the possibility of moving the legislature back to Tbilisi. Saakashvili on October 21 defended the relocation of the parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi as part of a broader decentralization of power.

In his address to the new parliament, Saakashvili made little effort to conceal his dislike and distrust of KO. The animosity is mutual: in a mark of disrespect, KO's 85 parliament deputies demonstratively declined to rise to their feet when Saakashvili entered the chamber, or to applaud him after he finished speaking.

Saakashvili characterized the election campaign as "difficult, indecent, and venomous." He expressed the hope the new leadership will not embark on "destroying" or "making things worse," thereby implying that its members either intend to do so, or are incapable of acting otherwise. And he warned that "those who are in opposition today may come to power again."

At the same time, Saakashvili argued, as he had done during his first postelection meeting with Ivanishvili on October 9, that what is now important is to focus on the well-being of the Georgian people and work together for the good of the country, despite what he termed the very real differences in views and policies between KO and the ENM.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze similarly affirmed after his election on October 21 as deputy parliament speaker representing the ENM that "we shall try to be a constructive opposition." Former parliament speaker David Bakradze for his part said ENM's 65 parliament deputies would not attempt to block the confirmation of ministerial nominees.

Such assurances may have been intended primarily for PR purposes, however. Just days later, ENM parliament member Chiora Taktakishvili told journalists that KO was pressuring and intimidating unnamed ENM deputies to switch their allegiance, presumably with the objective of securing a constitutional majority (100 of the total 150 seats). During the discussion on October 23 of KO's 23-page government program, some ENM deputies panned it as superficial. Some said it did not indicate clearly how various policies will be funded, or the deadline for their implementation. Others claimed that some of its provisions contradict pledges enshrined in KO's election manifesto.

Arguably the most telling indicator of the ENM's long-term plans is Saakashvili's appointment as ENM general secretary of his eminence grise, former Interior Minister and (briefly) Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili. Merabishvili was quoted last week by the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" as stating outright that "our goal is and will be to return to power." To achieve that, Merabishvili said, he planned to transform the ENM into "a new contemporary party," taking into account changes that have occurred within society.

One of the initiatives Saakashvili proposed during his address to the new parliament -- introducing direct elections for mayors and regional governors, who hitherto have been appointed by the president -- may be intended to facilitate that objective. The ENM had for years rejected repeated opposition demands for such direct elections, except for the mayor of Tbilisi.

The rationale for Saakashvili's volte face on direct elections may be that the incumbent mayors and governors -- members of the ENM whom he personally appointed to their current posts -- are ideally placed to function as the ENM's shock troops in its campaign to regain power.

Is Ivanishvili Ready To Lead?

Ivanishvili commented dismissively after Saakashvili's October 21 address that "the National Movement no longer has any chance of coming to power." His confidence may prove to be misplaced, however, in light of his inconsistent pronouncements and seeming lack of both professionalism and preparedness to assume the post of prime minister to which he had publicly aspired for the past year.

Several commentators have drawn attention to the length of time it took Ivanishvili to nominate his final cabinet line-up: they asked rhetorically why he had not decided in advance in consultation with the leaders of the other parties aligned in KO who should take which government post. And one of his choices has already proven controversial: several NGOs, including the respected Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, have called on Ivanishvili to retract his nomination of David Darakhvelidze as minister for displaced persons in light of chauvinistic remarks Darakhvelidze made during the election campaign.

Other aspects of Ivanishvili's behavior too may have raised eyebrows. Unveiling his first cabinet choices on October 8, he invited journalists to guess whom he had nominated for which post. And during their joint public appearance the following day, he referred to his interlocutor as "Saakashvili," rather than as "the president," as protocol (and elementary courtesy) require.

Ivanishvili has also shown himself to be inconsistent. Immediately after his election victory he announced that his first trip abroad as prime minister would be to the United States. Two weeks later, after meeting with visiting EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fuele, Ivanishvili said his first foreign trip would be to Brussels.

That inconsistency, and Ivanishvili's laid-back manner, may simply reflect his lack of previous political experience. But that is unlikely to deter the embattled ENM from adducing them, sooner or later, as evidence that he is out of his depth.

The amateurish impression Ivanishvili gives would not matter greatly (heaven knows that consistency was not one of Saakashvili's strong points either), but for the Damocles' sword of the presidential election due in October 2013. That means the new government (which the parliament is to confirm on October 25) has just one year in which to demonstrate to the electorate that it can run the country better and deliver a better standard of living for the population than Saakashvili's team.

Ivanishvili and his government must resign after the presidential ballot, and the newly elected president will be empowered to veto the parliament's proposed candidate to head the new government. That veto can be overturned only by a three-fifths majority vote (90 of the total 150 lawmakers).

Meanwhile, the parliament's first priority will be drafting the 2013 budget, taking into account the $11.4 billion foreign debt that the new leadership has inherited. The government, for its part, has to come to grips with a growing wave of strikes and work stoppages declared in solidarity with the 1,000-strong work force of the Chiatura manganese plant who downed tools last week.

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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