Ruling UNM expected to walk Georgia elections

By bne IntelliNews May 21, 2008

Clare Nuttall in Almaty -

Georgia's ruling United National Movement (UNM) is expected to win comfortably the May 21 parliamentary elections, the run-up for which has been overshadowed by the military build-up in the breakaway region of Abkhazia and worsening relations with Russia.

Three blocs and nine other political parties will compete in the elections for the 150 seats in Georgia's parliament. Despite claims by the Georgian opposition that the vote has been fixed, polls show President Mikhail Saakashvili's UNM has the support of a majority of the population.

One such poll released on May 19 by US pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner showed that the UNM is set to receive around 53% of the vote and will, therefore, have a strong majority in the parliament. The poll, carried out on May 8-13, put support for the UNM at 43%, with 14% of votes going to the Christian Democratic Movement, 11% to the United National Council, 5% to the Labor Party of Georgia, and 2% to the Republican Party. A further 21% were undecided. Taking into account the projected behaviour of undecideds, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner forecasts that UNM will get 53% of the vote.

The UNM's ticket is headed by several former government ministers who have served under Saakashvili. Nino Burjanadze, the popular parliamentary speaker who was expected to top the party list, decided on April 21 not to stand, leaving the former foreign minister Davit Bakradze to take the top spot. Bakradze, who stepped down from his government post in order to run for election, is expected to become the new speaker after the elections, assuming his party is successful. Burjanadze, who has previously served two terms as acting president, led 2003's Rose Revolution alongside Saakashvilli, and was believed to be his closest political ally. Her decision not to stand, which she attributed to disagreements over party lists and the need for reform of certain political processes in Georgia, was a PR blow for the UNM.

Other people on the UNM's list include Refugees and Accommodation Minister Koba Subeliani, State Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Protection Zaza Gamtsemlidze, and Agriculture Minister Petre Tsiskarishvili.

The main opposition to the UNM is the nine-party opposition bloc headed by Davit Gamkrelidze and Levan Gachediladze, which comprises parties including the New Rights Party, Conservative Party, Georgia's Way, and Freedom. The opposition has argued that the economic growth achieved in Georgia since Saakashvilli came to power has only benefited a small minority of the population. They have also accused the government of exacerbating the conflict in Abkhazia for their political gain.

Outside observers

Several opposition leaders have already alleged that the vote has been fixed in advance, with the government using its position to control the media, state agencies and electoral commissions. There have been several warnings of large-scale opposition demonstrations after the elections. "We already know this election is being rigged. We will bring people into the centre of Tbilisi to defend their votes against this falsification," Gachechiladze told an opposition rally last week.

Reports from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued in the run-up to the elections have already identified several violations. The OSCE is heading a delegation of more than 1,300 international observers from over 50 organisations that have registered to monitor the Georgian elections.

In an interim report, the OSCE states that it has "received numerous allegations of violations from opposition parties and NGOs. These include widespread intimidation, among others of candidates, party activists and state employees, especially teachers; illegal campaigning by public servants; and abuse of administrative resources." Specific cases include the UNM candidate in Tsageri, who withdrew from the election after a recording appeared to show him threatening public officials with dismissal if they did not secure 80% support for his party in the area.

However, there have been several reforms to the electoral system since the January 2008 presidential elections. These include making voter lists publicly available, lowering the threshold at which parties win seats in parliament based on the party list vote, changing the composition of the parliament to include 75 seats selected by national list and 75 selected in single-member districts, and ending same-day voter registration. According to Greenberg Quinlan Rosner's survey, all of these measures have increased public confidence in the electoral process.

It's also very much in the interests of Saakashvili and the government to ensure the elections are reasonably fair. No one wants a repeat of November's opposition demonstrations that resulted in violent clashes between police and protestors, which shocked the international community and resulted in Saakashvili having to declare a state of emergency.

Georgia has counted on Western support for its position on the Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and retaining this support will to a certain degree hinge on its elections being seen to be democratic.

Georgia's accession to Nato will also depend on how the elections are conducted. Matyas Eorsi, who led the recent Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Monitoring Committee delegation to Georgia, has said that Nato's Membership Action Plan would only be granted if the upcoming parliamentary elections were handled more correctly than the presidential election.

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