Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
Reeling from graphic evidence of widespread prisoner abuse just 10 days before the parliamentary elections, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his party are bracing themselves for a major fight to stay in power.
The scandal broke on September 18 after a series of violently explicit videos showing prisoners being sodomized with brooms and beaten were broadcast on Georgian television. Public reaction was swift, threatening to upset the ruling party's hold on the October 1 elections.
Large-scale protests against the president as well as several ministers have been held in Tbilisi and other cities around the country, and civil society groups have publicly called for the resignation of several key members of government. In response, Saakashvili has appointed the country's ombudsman, Giorgi Tugushi - a longtime advocate of prisoners' rights - to lead the prison ministry, and called on Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili to oversee a crackdown against those responsible for torturing inmates.
But analysts like Dr Alexander Rondeli, head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), note there might not be enough time for the ruling party to recover before the elections.
Prior to the leaked video, opposition parties were trailing Saakashvili's team, the United National Movement (UNM), for months based on surveys commissioned by the National Democratic Institution, the International Republican Institute and the party itself.
For his main rival, billionaire-turned-opposition financier Bidzina Ivanishvili, the scandal has been a short reprieve in a dirty political battle. The opposition has spent months fighting off allegations Ivanishvili, who finances many of them under his umbrella coalition the "Georgian Dream", is tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and wrestling with a long litany of fines as the ruling party fought to stop the billionaire from using his vast wealth to overwhelm the UNM's resources.
The contest for parliament has given a political charge to nearly every aspect of life in Georgia over the past several months, creating an increasingly divided society split between the two camps. The videos, however, could change all that.
The footage, which showed violent abuse of prisoners including graphic scenes of inmates weeping while guards sodomized them with broom handles, has cast doubt on the UNM's ability to win a majority of seats in parliament. "It will have, I think, quite a serious effect on the election results and it will make the ruling party situation worse, no doubt about it," Rondeli tells bne. "It also depends on how things develop on these days before elections. [There is not too] much time for repairing damage. The steps which the government is taking are right, but the problem now is time."
For the ruling party, the stakes are high. The parliamentary vote sets the stage for who will control the country following the presidential election in 2013, the date when Georgia will go from a strong presidential form of government to a parliamentary-style state ruled by a prime minister. The prime minister will be elected from the sitting parliament, making the October 1 vote essentially a fight for future control of the country.
Now, with just 10 days before the election, the ruling party is scrambling to appease shocked voters.
While the ruling party initially insinuated that the video was the work of the opposition trying to destabilize the elections, since the seriousness of the issue became clear the president has tried to draw a clear line between the shock of the tapes and the campaign. "I understand very well that this is the political war of compromising materials, but I am less worried about politics now," Saakashvili was quoted as saying on Civil.ge.
"We thought that we changed many things and we did, but major nasty things turned out to be still remaining [in the penitentiary]," he said. "We have zero tolerance towards these crimes... we also should have similar zero tolerance towards human rights infringement, because we are building a civilized country and not just discipline built on violence."
After months of aggressive campaigning, Saakashvili has pointedly curtailed his cross-country speeches and town hall-style meetings, staying in the capital to issue strong statements and recriminations. It is too soon, however, to judge how much impact this has had.
Hundreds of protestors - many wearing Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream t-shirts - have closed streets in Tbilisi in the days since the videos were broadcast, burning brooms and accusing the government of recreating a Georgian version of Abu Ghraib, the jail in Baghdad made infamous for footage of US soldiers abusing prisoners.
Calling the protests a "healthy reaction" to the broadcasts, Ivanishvili warned supporters that large rallies prior to the vote could backfire in the current politically charged atmosphere. "The Georgian population had a very healthy reaction... but I want to call on them not to start unplanned rallies and not to do what the Georgian authorities are expecting from the very first day after I came into politics," he said in a statement September 19. "We should manage to reach the elections in an organized manner, without much emotion and to change these authorities through the elections."
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