THE UPCOMING GEORGIAN LOCAL ELECTIONS: TURNOUT IS THE ISSUE

By Kakha Jibladze (09/20/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

While the National Movement has been successfully campaigning throughout the summer, the opposition parties have been forced to catch up to prepare. Although the government has taken some steps to ensure the elections will be free and fair, opposition candidates and activists are accusing the ruling party of stacking the odds in its favor. While the government is almost certain to come out victorious in the ballots, a low turnout could turn into a significant political setback for the administration.

The local elections have been a source of political tension for over a year, when the ruling party passed the current laws concerning local government last summer. According to the current law, the Sakrebulo or city council elects the Tbilisi mayor. However, the 37-seat council is largely staffed in a �winner takes all� method that favors the ruling party: 25 seats are given to the party with the most votes while the remaining 12 are divided among parties that received over 4% of the vote.

While the opposition, in particular the Republican party, has been fighting the law for the past year, to date there is no indication that the government is willing the allow the mayor of Tbilisi to be elected via open elections. According to Nino Burjanadze, the speaker of the parliament, while �eventually� there should be open elections for mayors, to date the Georgian population is �not ready� for the responsibility.

While no one believes the opposition has much of a chance to win the majority in the Sakrebulo, several prominent opposition leaders have announced their intentions to run for Tbilisi mayor, including influential former foreign minister Salome Zourabishvili and industrialist Gogi Topadze.

The outlook for the opposition for the elections as a whole � which include positions in local governments outside of Tbilisi � is grim according to political analysts. While opposition leaders tried to form a bloc to increase their chances, the early election date has thrown their plans into havoc. According to Georgian media reports, there is slim chance that they will succeed in forming any blocs; four parties are boycotting the elections and Zourabishvili�s party, Georgia�s Way, has made it clear it will not cooperate with any other party during the election.

While Zourabishvili is widely considered one of the strongest political candidates in the country, Georgian media sources began running stories last week indicating that her party, Georgia�s Way, might implode before the elections even take place. In addition, the New Rights, another semi-successful opposition party, dropped out of the elections after they failed to convince media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili to run for the Tbilisi mayor post on their ticket. According to Patarkatsishvili, his victory could �have triggered a confrontation and even a split in the governmental structure and Georgia�s enemies could have taken advantage of this situation.�

Opposition candidates are also pointing the finger at a new addition to the election code: according to a decision made by the Central Election Commission last week, a party�s candidate for the position of Tbilisi mayor does not have to earn his or her seat in the party�s block at the city council by winning a district election, which is good news for the heavily favored National Movement candidate (and current Tbilisi mayor) Gigi Ugulava.

Another obstacle created by the early deadline is the fact that current MPs who are planning on running in the election must temporarily relinquish their status in order to participate. The deadline to do so was September 11 although the parliament restarted its fall session on the 12th. According to members of the ruling party, those who were interested in participating in the elections should have called an emergency session of the parliament. However members of the opposition believed this would have been against the constitution.

The government�s decision to schedule elections so early does not quiet the fears that the election will be held in an open and fair manner. While the opposition parties do not have much chance to win the 25-seat majority in the Tbilisi city council, it is in the ruling party�s interest to ensure fair elections for all participators. According to some political analysts, while the election results are really a foregone conclusion due to the general weakness of the opposition parties, the National Movement has more at stake than winning posts in the local councils and mayoral positions: a low turnout on election day could be a strong message of voter dissatisfaction as the Rose Revolution gears up for its third anniversary. Any steps the government can take to ensure the elections are as fair and open as possible � and as assessable as possible to all potential voters � will go a long way in relieving some of the anti-government rhetoric that has been gaining momentum over the past eight months.