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Opposition opt for protests over campaigns, fearful of stacked election

By Winston Featherly
Monday, March 24
Parliamentary elections are now penciled in for May 26, but is anyone running?

At the end of last week, without fanfare, the president’s administration confirmed May 21 as the date of the next elections. President Mikheil Saakashvili, obligated to set a date 60 days ahead of time, suggested last week in Washington that the date would appease opposition politicians who did not want elections to follow May 26 National Day celebrations.

But opposition leaders say they’re not ready to pack in their protest camps and unload an election campaign. Dozens remain on hunger strike outside parliament, now demanding changes to the scheme for electing MPs. And without having accepted an arrangement for electing lawmakers, the opposition say they are unprepared to start running candidates.

“We have not started [an election campaign] yet,” said Republican MP Davit Berdzenishvili, “because this is not a situation to think about election campaigns when so many people are on hunger strike.”

The moderate Republicans, which split from the eight-party opposition coalition this month, are not participating in the hunger strikes, which began on March 9.

Jondi Baghaturia, a leading member of the opposition coalition, says his group isn’t in campaign mode either.

“Now we are fighting for guarantees that we will have fair and democratic elections. We haven’t even been talking about a campaign,” he told the newspaper.

Opposition supporters claim a January 5 snap presidential election was rigged to hand Saakashvili a second term. International observers noted significant irregularities and instances of fraud, but widely deemed the election democratic.

Ruling party representatives were not available to comment for this article.

Manana Nachkebia of the New Rights, which are leading a hunger strike in the parliamentary speaker’s antechamber, suggested her party may consider boycotting the elections if they aren’t satisfied with the government’s guarantees of a fair poll.

“I don’t rule out [a boycott] if they don’t make some compromises,” she said yesterday. “I want to highlight that the elections need free media, and [today] we will hold a protest to return Imedi TV to the people.”

She acknowledged that the parliamentary electoral system the opposition fought against has already passed, but said that there is still a way out of the situation if the government “has the desire.”

It is unlikely that all opposition parties would agree on a boycott. Berdzenishvili, of the Republicans, said his party would compete in the elections. But while the government continues its standard highly public events, which often effectively double as campaign rallies, none in the opposition have publicly began their bid for parliament.

Eter Tsotniashvili contributed reporting.