Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Georgia's Political Environment Worsens Ahead of Local Elections

Published in Field Reports

By Eka Janashia (06/18/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Election watchdogs groups have given a negative verdict on Georgia’s pre-election situation in the run-up to the June 15 local elections. According to their reports, pressure against municipal candidates and political violence has increased and reflect a deterioration of the political climate compared to that during the 2013 presidential polls.

Georgian legislation requires that at least 15 candidates are featured in proportional party lists in districts with more than 75,000 voters, and at least 10 candidates in districts with fewer voters. Hence, the withdrawal of one nominee could distort a party’s whole proportional list. The election watchdogs argue that pressure exercised by the authorities has caused the cancellation of the entire party list of some non-parliamentary opposition parties in several municipalities.

Former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze’s United Opposition party was disqualified from the proportional contest for positions in the Dmanisi Municipal Council (Sakrebulo) after five of its candidates withdrew from the race. In the same district, candidates of the Christian-Democratic and United National Movement (UNM) have allegedly also been under pressure to cancel their registration of candidates. The removal of three candidates from Georgia’s Way party, led by former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili, caused the invalidation of its proportional list in Akhaltsikhe municipality. In addition, the election observer groups disclosed that nine UNM candidates had refused to run in Tsalka, Tetritskaro, Borjomi, Adigeni, Akhalkalaki, Dedoplistskaro and Lentekhi municipalities.

Meanwhile, the election commission of the Marneuli electoral district de-registered Akmamed Imamquliyev – the UNM candidate to head Marneuli’s municipal administration – allegedly due to a failure to meet the law’s requirement of a two-year term of residency. UNM insisted that Georgian Dream (GD) MP Ali Mamedov personally required that Imamquliyev should withdraw his candidacy. The Tbilisi City Court later restored his candidature.

Aside from tensions incurred by the authorities’ alleged pressure on municipal candidates, physical confrontations and assaults against people involved in political activities have become frequent. One of the UNM leaders, Zurab Chiaberashvili, was attacked in a downtown Tbilisi café on May 27. Although the assailant hit Chiaberashvili several times in the head with a cup, the offender was charged with deliberate infliction of minor injuries, instead of hooliganism which would have implied a much stricter punishment.

On June 6, protesters surrounded UNM’s local office in Zugdidi, Samegrelo region, throwing stones and condemning the party’s candidate for the head of the Zugdidi municipality administration, Tengiz Gunava. The rally occurred after PM Irakli Garibashvili stated that Gunava had been involved in the murder of Paata Kardava, a military intelligence officer in Zugdidi who disappeared on August 27, 2008 and had officially been considered missing until June 5, 2014. Attacking and hitting Gunava and his supporters, demonstrators were screaming that he had no right to run in the elections. The next day, a scuffle broke out in Batumi when a few GD activists arrived at a meeting held by the UNM’s leaders with a small group of voters as part of their election campaign.

The U.S. embassy in Tbilisi expressed concerns over the violent incidents and called on authorities to investigate cases objectively, and to take measures both technically and politically to meet high standards of elections. The EU’s special adviser for legal reforms and human rights in Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg, even suggested that the authorities should launch “a national campaign against violence.”

In a survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) from March 26 to April 18, 48 percent of the likely voters said they intended to vote for the ruling GD coalition, followed by UNM at 12 percent. United Opposition and the Labor Party got 4 percent each. Of the respondents, 19 percent were undecided, 8 percent refused to answer, and 3 percent rejected all candidates.

Whereas GD still enjoys higher popular support than other parties, the government’s actions and rhetoric have been accompanied with reduced support, especially in regions outside Tbilisi. Garibashvili’s statement, “we will not allow the victory of any political force [other than Georgian Dream] in any region or city” drew heavy criticism from the civil society sector and was assessed as wording typical for totalitarian leaders.

Two years after coming to power, GD desperately needs to maintain the image of a functional political unity capable of synchronizing the multiple interests of its various member parties. While victory in the local elections is a matter of prestige and political survival for GD, it seems that UNM’s immediate goal is simply to gather a sizable amount of votes. If the UNM would gain a grip on local power, that would enable GD to place part of the blame for potential misconduct on the UNM, and possibly to divert popular anger towards the opposition party. Thus, the UNM seemingly strives to allow the ruling coalition space to discredit itself through unfulfilled promises, after which it hopes to regain its own popularity among voters.

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