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5 Jan, 2008 14:03

Georgia election: opposition accuses Saakashvili's party

Polls have now closed in Georgia`s presidential election with around 46 per cent of those eligible turning out to vote. The opposition, led by Levan Gachechiladze, is accusing Mikhail Saakashvili`s ruling party of attempting to rig the ballot.

Fairness concerns

The opposition claim there have been irregularities, though so far monitors say they've seen nothing suspicious.

“Some polling stations have not opened and there are reports some people have voted more than once in Tbilisi,” Gachechiladze claimed.

Voters are marked with invisible ink designed to prevent them from attempting to cast their vote twice. Gachechiladze’s spokesperson Tina Khidasheli claimed that some of the serious violations the opposition has noted were connected with this equipment.

“In almost 15 per cent of the polling stations, marking equipment has been destroyed and people have been denied entrance to the stations to cast their votes. And at the same time multiple voting is being carried out by activists from Saakashvili's National Movement,” she said.

Candidate and former president Mikhail Saakashvili said that all allegations of violations have to be taken into consideration regardless of whether they come from his party or from the opposition.

However, he responded to one of the opposition’s claims of violations. He said that his party’s supporters using buses to get voters to the polling stations is not illegal. Saakashvili noted that this is just for convenience, especially considering today’s bad weather in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, which is covered with snow.

The country's government has given assurances the vote will be free and fair, despite fraud allegations from the opposition. More than a thousand international observers as well as two thousand local ones are monitoring today’s election. They are present at every polling station.

Preliminary monitoring by the OSCE and local observers hinted at some problems in the campaign, including attempts to bribe voters. However, there were no serious violations.

According to Chairman of the Central Election Commission, Levan Tarkhnishvili, no serious violations have been detected so far. The OSCE will give a news conference tomorrow and announce whether any serious violations have been uncovered.

Voting underway

Despite the fact that Georgians are not known to be early risers, according to Georgia’s Central Election Commission, at midday local time the voter turnout was already 16 per cent. The polling stations opened at 8.00 local time.

The former president, Mikhail Saakashvili, said he was very content with the way the election was going and urged Georgians to go to the polling stations despite the bad weather.

“These elections are significant for the whole of the post-Soviet area, for all of us. We intend to continue the reforms and we intend to continue developing Georgia in the same direction as in the last four years,” he said.

The snap vote was called by former President Saakashvili after he suppressed opposition protests in November.

Who do Georgians support?

There have been no preliminary announcements from the Central Election Commission, but Mikhail Saakashvili is the front-runner in this election.  

The real question is whether the opposition coalition candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, combined with the other opposition candidates, will be able to get more than 50 % and force Saakashvili into a second round of voting in two weeks’ time. 

If that happens than there is a possibility that the opposition could unite around Gachechiladze.

The electorate is divided into three parts, according Dr Hans Gutbrod, Director of Caucasus Research and Resource Centre.

“There are 25 % that fully support the government and Saakashvili. There is a third that stays hard against the government. And there is a very broad group in the middle that is making up their mind to vote against,” he said. 

Some of those people, he said, will only decide today who they are going to vote for. They're finding it very hard to find the right candidate right now.

However, Mikhail Aleksandrov from the institute of CIS studies says “the result of the election is predetermined, because Saakashvili is not going to yield power to the opposition.” 

“There are very serious interests at stake. Opposition leaders have already said that Saakashvili and his colleagues in the government will be subject to court hearings. In these circumstances yielding power to the opposition will mean that these people will lose everything: not only property and money, but also their freedom,” he said.

Georgia and NATO  

Alongside this presidential election there are two referendums being held simultaneously.

One of them concerns Georgia’s possible membership of NATO, which is expected to get enormous backing.

Aleksey Kuzmin from the National Prospects Foundation says that the main issue of all the Georgian politics for more than 10 years has been the problem of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“At the moment NATO might look like a vehicle to resolve this problem. A couple of years more talking about NATO and the problem not being resolved will make people much less eager to join the organisation,” he said.  

“The question is whether NATO is eager to have Georgia, with its territorial problems, within the organisation,” Kuzmin said.

“Whoever wins the election, the economic and social situation in Georgia is not likely to change,” said Aslan Abashidze from Moscow's University of International Relations.

All candidates, except Irina Sarishvili, the only female candidate, are pro-western and support the idea of Georgia joining NATO, “which is a key factor in tensions between Georgia and Russia,” stated the Doctor of Law.  

“Without ratifying its relations with Russia, Georgia has a little hope of improving its economic and social situation,” added Abashidze.

The second referendum asks Georgians when they want the next parliamentary election to be held : in the spring or in November of 2008.

The rescheduling of the parliamentary election to April was one of the opposition's main demands.