May 28, 2010, 9:48 p.m.
On May 30, 2010 Georgians will go to the polls to choose local government representatives in the country’s latest installment of participatory democracy. This will be the first nationwide voting since the August 2008 war with Russia. The conflict has loomed in the background throughout the pre-election process, which essentially began in January after a modified election code was approved by the parliament on December 28. In addition to the majoritarian and party list voting to elect new representatives to 64 municipal councils, or Sakrebulos, across the country, voters in the capital of Tbilisi will be directly electing their mayor for the first time. It has been suggested that the winner of the mayoral election will have the inside track to becoming the next president in January 2013, the date of the next presidential election and also the end of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s constitutionally-limited second term. Though local elections typically do not attract a significant deal of international attention, these elections have compelled the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose mandate officially ended in the country in 2009, to deploy a large observer contingent. Last year, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden underscored the importance of the upcoming municipal elections, specifically the need to level the electoral playing field so that the elections strengthen Georgia's electoral mechanisms and reinforce public confidence in democratic governance. For his part, President Saakashvili has vowed to make the municipal elections "the most democratic in Georgia’s history." Much has been done to improve the administration of the elections and promote inclusiveness for both candidates and voters as well as third-party monitoring by non-governmental organizations. New regulations on using administrative resources, inclusion of opposition members as chairpersons of Precinct Election Commissions, creation of an online, searchable database for election disputes and complaints, and active support for independent monitoring of the election process have all been very welcome signs taken by the Central Election Commission and its new Chairman Zurab Kharatishvili. At the same time, certain changes to the election code and procedures that led the progressive-minded Kharatishvili to the Chairmanship of the CEC in January bear the marks of disproportionate influence by President Saakashvili’s United National Movement. To wit, although the direct election of the mayor is a landmark event, the decision to impose a 30% threshold (in which a candidate receiving the most votes but no less than 30% will be declared the winner), is unfairly advantageous to the incumbent mayor Gigi Ugulava, the only candidate who has been consistently polling higher than 30%. Many experts believe that the main reason for rejecting a more common threshold of 50% is that the government wishes at all costs to avoid a runoff, in which, theoretically, the opposition could unite behind the main challenger and unseat Mr. Ugulava, thereby complicating possible plans for a smooth Ugulava presidential succession in 2013. The threshold issue also speaks to the relative weakness and disunity of Georgian opposition politicians. Of the eight challengers for the post of mayor, only one, former Georgian U.N. Ambassador Irakli Alasania, has polled in doubledigits. Efforts by Mr. Alasania and his sometimes tenuous Alliance for Georgia (a union of four political parties) to attract other prominent opposition candidates to the fold have proven unsuccessful. Of the main opposition rivals, the Christian Democrats’ Giorgi Chanturia and the Conservative Party Coalition’s combative nominee Zviad Dzidziguri could draw away significant numbers of votes away from the more youthful Mr. Alasania. The failure of the opposition to coalesce around one candidate may speak to the diversity of Georgian political life, but it will also very likely render less complicated the efforts of Gigi Ugulava to achieve a second term as Tbilisi’s mayor. In the cities and hamlets outside of the capital, there are reports that pressure has been steadily applied by forces loyal to President Saakashvili to vote UNM candidates to local Sakrebulos. The many documented incidents leading up to election day will prove a test of the President’s pledge for democratic elections, for the results of Sunday’s voting will have as much to do with the conduct of the President’s team before the elections as they will the voters’ choices on election day. Another factor is the ever-present threat from Russia. Conveniently scheduled to take place three days after Independence Day celebrations, the election will be tinged for voters with a sense of patriotic duty and the need to support Georgian statehood (and, by association, pro-Saakashvili candidates), lest the country be perceived as weak and vulnerable to pro-Russian elements such as the kind embodied by the controversial Zurab Nogaideli, the former prime minister-turned-maverick opposition figure whose deepening ties to Russia’s ruling elite have caused considerable strain in Tbilisi. The government appears to be attributing concern over economic and employment ills once again to the close proximity of Russian forces to Tbilisi and Georgia’s heartland. While the threat is certainly real, so is the increasing skepticism of Georgia’s voters, who may nevertheless view the elections as a referendum on the UNM and Mr. Saakashvili himself. With this possibility in mind, reports of pre-election intimidation and bullying tactics to help assure a strong UNM result have been on the rise. Georgia’s leadership is aware it is walking a fine line in the local elections. With the mayor’s office all but wrapped up, it must still ensure a strong turnout of support for the UNM in the multitude of local races nationwide to reinforce its position at the top of the Georgian political hierarchy as the country readies for both parliamentary and presidential elections within the next three years. At the same time, Georgia’s international position as a democracy under external siege must sufficiently demonstrate the first part of that equation with enough vigor to merit continued unwavering support, financial and otherwise, for the country’s present course and leadership team. Yet it remains internal credibility that should be of highest concern to this government, which should not be taken as a foregone conclusion. Anthony Clive Bowyer is IFES' Program Manager for the Caucasus & Central Asia.