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Snap local elections

By Messenger Staff
Tuesday, August 11
The proposal to hold snap local elections is the only visible outcome of the protest actions taken by the non-Parliamentary opposition for more than three months. Of course some minor concessions have been made by the Government: the opposition is now allowed to participate in different state institutions such as the Security Council which had previously been monopolised by the National Movement, the Constitutional Commission has been established and election code changes are being processed. But the only decision to hold the local elections six months early is a practical result. President Saakashvili said they would be held on May 30, 2010, and Parliament has now agreed, although since the President proposed the date everybody knew that this would be it.

The only demand the opposition made in the street was the resignation of the President and consequent Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Of course this dream was exactly that and what the opposition has actually gained is very small by comparison. But what is important is that prior to the holding of these elections changes must be made to the election code. How will elections under a new code differ from those under the old? Many factors can affect the outcome of an election, but if people trust the results more, progress will have been made.

The non-Parliamentary opposition has promised to start Ďa second wave of protest actionsí this Autumn. If the current conditions are further aggravated by more social and economic issues thousands of people may take part. But experience shows that however many actions are held and however many people attend them Saakashvili has not the slightest intention of giving up power. So the street protest method is rather controversial because we can assume that the opposition is unlikely to achieve its goal in this way. Everyone in Georgia also remembers that one of the major motives of last yearís Russian attack on Georgia was to kick the Georgian President out of office, as officially or unofficially stated by President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin and their underlings.

Under these circumstances local elections will be a test for the new election code which should be in place by then. Will this be really democratic or only a facade concocted to please Western observers and friends? Another challenge is how far the ruling National Movement will use public administrative resources to influence the results of the elections. A third is how observers from different countries and institutions will assess the results of the elections. They said that the last Presidential and Parliamentary elections here were both fair and democratic, although the opposition and some experts here in Georgia saw serious violations and maintain they were practically rigged. In these new local elections the ruling party should actually meet the democratic standards it claims it wants to in order to avoid serious consequences. Western institutions and leaders involved in Georgian affairs have many times repeated that they donít support street actions at all and all the problems should be resolved at the negotiation table and through democratic elections, but for this to happen the elections need to be really transparent and fair so that there is not the slightest doubt about their results.

When the first results of the work on amendments to the election code are available we will know how genuinely and honestly the administration is dedicated to fulfilling the commitments to democracy it has taken. Analysts think that if future elections are really held according to accepted democratic standards the composition of elected bodies might be quite different. We can assume that it is not in the interest of the authorities to rig the local elections because even if they retreat a little bit they will not lose control of the central Government and have enough time to prepare themselves for the more serious battle for Parliament. Holding fair elections will also improve the administrationís democratic image in the West, which is rather important.

The majority will still have very serious advantages in the next local elections, even if the election code becomes a model democratic rectitude. Government-controlled TV networks broadcast throughout Georgia, unlike opposition-inclined ones. The ruling party controls the national finances. When a new hospital, kindergarten or any such institution is opened it is done by a representative of an official body who is also a prominent National Movement figure. Assistance to the population is given in a way which clearly indicates that the National Movement rather than the Georgian state is taking care of them, and in fact it could be said that the National Movement has already indirectly started its local election campaign. The administration also has almost complete control of the structures of local governance. The police, intelligence services, city or regional councils and all self-governance bodies everywhere are controlled by the present governing party. Therefore the opposition, who are divided and not well organised, will have serious problems competing under any election code.

The most intriguing question however is what will happen in the direct election of the Tbilisi Mayor. The opposition have always demanded the direct election of this post, both during the Shevardnadze administration and the present one, but only recently has Saakashvili agreed with this demand. During last yearís Presidential election opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze beat Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi and it is generally acknowledged that Tbilisi is an opposition city. However this does not mean that the administration will hand this post to the opposition without a serious struggle. The leadership is determined to defeat any opposition candidate and this will be even easier if the opposition do not consolidate around one candidate and nominate several candidates.

It can be predicted now that the administration will nominate the incumbent, Gigi Ugulava, as the new directly elected Tbilisi Mayor as he is being promoted everywhere very intensely. If the opposition want, as they claim, to seriously challenge the administration they must consolidate immediately and unify their efforts otherwise they are doomed to lose.