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Wednesday, 22 May 2002

THE GEORGIAN LOCAL ELECTIONS: CAMPAIGNING TO NO AVAIL

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By Irakly Areshidze (5/22/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The local election campaign has dominated politics in Georgia for the last few weeks, even though more significant developments took place in the Georgian Parliament, where all Committee Chairmen were dismissed by a new \"procedural\" majority in early May and leadership positions were then divided amongst all 14 Parliamentary Factions. This was yet another significant blow to former Speaker of Parliament Zurab Zhvania, whose team used to control all of the most important committees. Zviad Mukhbaniani, a 28-year-old member of the pro-Shevardnadze Faction \"Alliance for New Georgia\" was appointed Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, while Irakli Batiashvili, Co-Chairman of the opposition New Rights Party, was appointed Chairman of the Defense and Security Committee.
The local election campaign has dominated politics in Georgia for the last few weeks, even though more significant developments took place in the Georgian Parliament, where all Committee Chairmen were dismissed by a new \"procedural\" majority in early May and leadership positions were then divided amongst all 14 Parliamentary Factions. This was yet another significant blow to former Speaker of Parliament Zurab Zhvania, whose team used to control all of the most important committees. Zviad Mukhbaniani, a 28-year-old member of the pro-Shevardnadze Faction \"Alliance for New Georgia\" was appointed Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, while Irakli Batiashvili, Co-Chairman of the opposition New Rights Party, was appointed Chairman of the Defense and Security Committee. The significance of the Parliamentary reshuffling has been lost amidst the rubble of the local campaigns. While the vote is scheduled for June 2, 2002, some observers have said that the date might have to be moved to June 16 if the Central Election Commission (CEC) is not able to finish preparations for the elections. In recent weeks the CEC has been tied up in battles concerning the control of formerly ruling Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG). Zhvania has been poised against pro-Shevardnadze Kvemo Kartli Governor Levan Mamaladze for the control of CUG for almost six months. In the local elections, the former Speaker had planned to use the CUG\'s name and registration, but was challenged in Court by Mamaladze\'s supporters, who argued that Zhvania did not have the right to speak for the CUG because he was not elected to a governing position by the Party Congress. The District Court agreed with Mamaladze, but did not decide whether his supporters, who include every CUG regional boss, had the right to speak on behalf of the Party either., instead canceling the Party\'s registration until the CUG Congress decided its future. Zvhania appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which scheduled a hearing, but not before the date when Party lists were due. As a result, the CEC rejected both lists submitted to it on behalf of the CUG by Zhavania and Mamaladze. A May 21 Court decisions has apparently upheld the district court\'s decision. Campaigning among different parties has been intense, and Georgia seems to be facing two separate elections: a very loud and expensive, though arguably strategically insignificant race for the Tbilisi Sakrebulo (City Council), and a less volatile but politically critical campaign for regional Sakrebulos and mayors of a number of large cities, such as Rustavi and Kutaisi. In Tbilisi, where elections are conducted using party lists (in the regions there is generally direct voting in districts), only four political parties are in a position to do well; Zhvania\'s team is not among them. Having lost control of the CUG, Zhvania\'s team was forced to compete on the ticket of the Christian Conservative Party, which is part of the \"Zviadist\" (supporters of ex-President Zviad Gamsakhuridia) network. Zhvania is fielding a list of candidates in Tbilisi, but is unlikely to garner much support in the capital; he is not competing in the regions. Regionally, only the New Rights Party is engaged in a serious campaign and is fielding over 1700 candidates across Georgia. The election in Tbilisi is a battle between two ideologically opposite political parties (the leftist Laborist Party, whose policies are indistinguishable from Communism, and the New Rights Party, which is advocating a very libertarian economic platform) and two personality-driven forces (the group of former Minister of Justice Mikhael Saakashvili, the National Movement, and the Industrialists Party of Beer Magnate Gogi Topadze). Saakashvili\'s slogan, \"Tbilisi Without Shevardnadze,\" sums up his campaign very well, since the National Movement has spared no effort in using populism to demonize the President as the source of every evil in Georgia. Though Saakashvili seldom speaks of concrete policies, his plans, inasmuch as one is able to decipher them, suggest that the National Movement and the Laborist Party are focused on the same electorate-people who wish to return to the \"free\" social services of the Soviet past. It is highly unlikely, however, that the Laboritst\'s leader, Shalva Natelashvili, whose village upbringing and speech make him utterly unacceptable to the Tbilisi elite, and Saakashvili, by-and-large the product of that elite, could become political allies should they both find themselves in the Sakrebulo. The other two groups, the Industrialists and the New Rights Party, are also in many respects competing with each other for a similar electorate, one consisting of Tbilisi\'s growing middle class and the pro-business community. Unlike the National Movement and the Laborist Party, the industrialists and New Rights might cooperate in the Tbilisi Sakrebulo on procedural matters (as they currently do in the Parliament) to keep Saakashvili out of the Sakrebuklo Speaker post. Though New Rights might very well be the best-financed group, it has refused to buy television advertisements, saying that its $100,000 campaign war chest was given to a fund the Party and its business supporters established to help victims of Tbilisi\'s April earthquake. The Georgian airways have been bombarded by Saakashvili\'s anti-Shevardnadze ads. On the one hand Saakashvili\'s ability to mount such an anti-President campaign without the fear of recrimination is a very positive sign for democracy. Still, the ads and the general tone of the campaign are a source of destabilization, since neither Saakashvili nor other political leaders have been able to present themselves, as yet, to be a viable alternatives or successors to the President. While it remains an open question whether one should trust Georgian polls, recent trends suggest that Saakashvili\'s popularity has reached its peak. A pro-Saakashvili poll of Tbilisi published in the newspaper Akhali Versia has had the National Movement at around 10.3 percent for three weeks notwithstanding its very active campaign schedule. The most recent Akhali Versia poll published Monday, May 20, 2002, puts the New Rights in second place with 8.7 percent, with the Laborist Party and the Industrialists in a virtual tie for third with 8 and 7.9 percent respectively. The undecided group is the largest, at almost 23 percent. A number of other polls show similar trends, though some indicate that New Rights and National Movement might have traded places, with the former polling first since its response to the earthquake. Irakly Areshidze is a Visiting Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies. These opinions are his own only. Feedback is welcome at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved
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