ROAR: Opposition in Georgia loses “battle for Tbilisi”

The ruling United National Movement is winning the local election in Georgia as the opposition has failed to unite.

The elections to 64 local legislative assemblies were held on May 30 in 73 polling districts of the country on both proportional and majority systems.

The results from first 20% of polling stations show that President Mikhail Saakashvili’s party, the United Democratic Movement, has got 64% of the vote, the Central Elections Commission said. They are followed by the Christian Democrats with 12% and the Alliance for Georgia with 10%. A total of fourteen political parties and three electoral blocs are running in the election.

This is the first election since the August 2008 events in the North Caucasus. Citing exit polls and “political experience and intuition”, President Saakashvili said the votes cast for the ruling party were approximately “the same as at the parliamentary elections in 2008 and the local elections four years ago.”

Stressing that the record number of voters took part in the elections and parties demonstrated their “maturity,” Saakashvili said that “democracy in Georgia won another victory.” However, half of all voters did not come to the polls. According to the Central Electoral Commission, the turnout was 49%.

More than 5,000 local and international observers monitored the elections, Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily said. Such close attention can be explained by promises of both the authorities and opposition “to win the decisive victory,” the paper added. “The defeat put the political future of the participants of this campaign under question, and this concerns the candidates for Tbilisi’s mayor first of all.”

Gigi Ugulava, a close ally of Saakashvili, has received more than half of the vote, according to preliminary results. His main rival, Irakli Alasania, a former ambassador to the United Nations, is trailing with 19%. Many expect Ugulava to run for president in 2013.

Rivals’ complaints

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) observer mission reported on “significant shortcomings” during the May 30 elections in Georgia. The observers noted “deficiencies in the legal framework and its implementation,” stressing that the campaign environment was “an uneven playing field favoring contestants from the incumbent party.”

The OSCE's mission specified systemic irregularities such as “several cases of ballot box stuffing and procedural violations during the vote count.” Describing the elections as “transparent” and marking “evident progress to international standards,” the mission stated that the “shortcomings” still remain to be addressed.

Prior to the elections and on the day of voting, some opposition leaders said the authorities were preparing to rig the elections. Movement for Fair Georgia headed by former Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli highlighted “two methods of falsifications” that the authorities used around the country, Rosbalt news agency said.

A party’s representative, Lado Bozhadze, said that there were cases when, instead of special liquid. voters’ hands were marked with water. So, some people were able to vote several times, he said. At many poling stations marking devices did not work at all, he added.

The turnout was suspiciously higher in two regions in the south and the east of the country, the opposition politician added. Bozhandze also complained of the pressure from regional authorities on opposition candidates and members of local electoral commissions.

Alliance for Georgia, in its turn, also described the turnout as “unreal” at special polling stations where servicemen voted.

Many also complained that the lists of voters were not accurate enough, Rosbalt news agency said. One of the leaders of the Republican Party Tinatin Khidasheli stressed that the Central Elections Commission does not take the complaints into consideration, it added.

However, despite promises of opposition figures “to stage something like revolution in case of falsifications,” there is no critical mass for this, the agency said.

“Despite tough statements prior to the elections from representatives of the authorities and opposition… no serious incidents were reported on May 30 by electoral commissions or observers,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted. “Probably, the main events may follow after the Central Electoral Commission declares the results of the elections.”

Opposition, not united

The Georgian opposition failed to unite and choose a single candidate against the favorite of elections in Tbilisi, the incumbent Gigi Ugulava, Nezavisimaya Gazeta said. “This has made the task to retain power in Georgia’s main political and economic center much easier for the ruling United National Movement,” the paper said. In regions, the authorities have “traditional dominance,” it added.

“Uncoordinated opposition forces” were united in one thing, and repeated that the authorities could win the elections “only rigging their results,” the paper said. “However, aggressive rhetoric, according to a number of polls, only played in the hands of the authorities, and several days before the elections, Ugulava left behind his main rivals.”

Independent Georgian analysts had warned that the opposition’s chances “were not so optimistic and promising,” the paper said. The main problem is disagreements among main opposition figures. They also made it clear that they will try to use the victory on May 30 mainly to dismiss Saakashvili and call early presidential and parliamentary elections. However, for many voters this means new political tensions and instability, the analysts said.

According to a former ambassador to Moscow, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, opposition parties had consultations to appoint a single candidate for mayor. “We wanted to hold live primaries so that the candidate was appointed during an honest competition,” he told Kommersant daily. “But the alliance for Georgia abandoned this struggle and went to the elections independently.”

Relations with Russia

At the same time, candidates for mayor stressed the need to restore relations with Russia, except the representatives of the ruling party, Kommersant said. “Saakashvili’s foreign policy is a new Berlin Wall between Georgia and Russia, frozen relations with America and friendship with Iran,” Kitsmarishvili told the paper.

“This policy is unconstructive, it aims at destabilizing the situation and will lead to the breakup of the country, which will be accelerated by growing social protest inside the state,” he added.

“But recent polls do not confirm the opposition’s statements about increasing social protest,” the paper said. Some of them had predicted victory for Ugulava with more than 50% of the vote, while head of the Alliance for Georgia Alasania was in second place with 17%.

“Sociology in an authoritarian country loses its sense,” Kitsmarishvili told the daily. “Our citizens are disappointed in elections, and only electorate organized by administrative methods comes to the polls.”

Rehearsal of presidential elections

The ruling party was not afraid of opposition politicians’ criticism, Kommersant said. Its representatives say that they are not afraid to recognize their mistakes, and this thesis “almost became a slogan of the campaign.”

The Georgian president has contributed to this campaign as “he opened new facilities every day and promised people that Georgia would flourish soon,” the paper said. “His active electoral activities have confirmed that local elections are extremely important for him in a political and personal sense,” the paper said.

Analysts have already described the polls as a full-dress rehearsal of the parliamentary and presidential elections, the paper said. “After the victory, Ugulava will act as a real candidate for president,” Kitsmarishvili noted.

Simultaneously, the role of parliament will be increasing, he believes. Georgia may be turned into “a parliamentary and presidential country with a weak president and a strong premier,” he added. “This situation is good for both Saakashvili and Ugulava,” he said. The opposition used the rumors about the new model being prepared for the country to warn the West and Russia, the paper added.

The return of direct election of the capital’s mayor was “not a democratic achievement, but only Saakashvili’s concession to the opposition made after protests in November 2007, Aleksandr Karavaev of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at Moscow State University believes.

The opposition considers that November, rather than the August 2008 events, was the turning point of Saakashvili’s rule – the deliberate turn from democracy to a tough authoritarian model, the analyst wrote in Kommersant.

“Saakashvili has the task to transfer power observing democratic norms, but without changing the course and maintaining his enormous influence,” Karavaev said. “In any case, Saakashvili may maintain a firm grip on power for a long time,” the analyst noted.

The president has strong support among the population, officials and representatives of law enforcement agencies, he said, adding that it was premature to disregard the Georgian president.

However, it is difficult to predict if Georgia will avoid serious upheavals until the next presidential elections, Rosbalt said. The opposition will hardly resign itself to the defeat, it added.

But the struggle may happen not only among the opposition and the authorities, but also between the pro-West and pro-Russian parts of the opposition, the agency noted. So far these parts have not been able to strengthen because of the strong positions of the authorities, it noted.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review