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Telavi By-Election a Foretaste of What is to Come

By Messenger Staff
Thursday, October 6
While Georgian media is pre-occupied with the visit of the French President on October 7, a by-election was held in Telavi district. A vacancy appeared after the death of Telavi majoritarian MP Gia Arsenishvili. Of course, these elections did not change much in the balance of power within the parliament. The current parliament maintains an overwhelming majority of ruling party representatives there. But the by-election could be observed as a dress rehearsal for the major parliamentary elections which will take place next year. It highlighted the methods and ways the ruling United National Movement (UNM) will conduct its activities in the pre-election period.

One thing is clear, the UNM plans to win forthcoming parliamentary and then presidential elections. The victory must be overwhelming. The ruling party want to secure this not by harsh methods or manipulation which could immediately attract the discontent of western partners, therefore the ruling authorities must use more sophisticated methods for achieving acceptable results. Such methods are already coming into view. First, there are the new amendments to the election code which benefits the ruling party. For instance the ruling powers are keen on upping the current number of majoritarian, directly elected MPs as practice shows that majoritarian candidates from the UNM generally win seats. In the current parliament, out of 75 majoritarian members only three represent the opposition.

In the recently held Telavi majoritarian by-election the ruling party candidate received 84.3% of the vote. This is an impressive proportion, but is undermined by the fact that only 35.8% of voters participated in the elections. In previous times, the Georgian election code annulled the results of majoritarian elections if less then 50% of voters turned out. According to that standard Telavi elections failed, however the current elections code does not include a rule on this. During the forthcoming elections the ruling power will manage to mobilize its supporters but they represent only around 30% of the electorate. Meanwhile, the opposition cannot mobilize the rest of the voters and cannot counter balance the ruling force. As for proportional election seats through party lists the UNM manages to accumulate up to 40% of the vote, enough to guarantee victory.

As analysts suggest the problems the UNM could face come less from opposition and more from factions within the inside the party itself. Saakashvili so far has not revealed his future plans, and whether he would prefer to become PM or speaker of the parliament. There is no distinct vision either yet on the issue of who will be the candidate for the presidency at the next elections.

One thing is sure though, that Saakashvili will continue to hold power in the country one way or another. As some say the institutional wrangling and micro-managing required to keep one man in power is akin to the Russian model of political development. Yet, there is one difference: the Georgian leadership claims to be democratic and openly craves acceptance from the west. Saakashvili desperately needs to present what happens at the elections as democratic, fair and transparent. But this will be difficult if events proceed along the Telavi model. Clearly Georgian voters who did not support the UNM have nowhere to turn given the state of the opposition in the country. With no voice, they choose exit and leave the voting to those UNM supporters brought out by the party machine.

So, come next year, what election observers and western stakeholders may care about is not what happened at the vote, but what did not happen a landslide victory could be undermined by low turnout, showing that people have disengaged from the personalistic politics governing the country. This will be damaging to the UNM and Georgia's chances for further western integration. It will be clear that the UNM could and should have done more to foster multi-party democracy, to bring about proper electoral competition. Now, the Telavi by-election's results, far from a victory to be celebrated, are a warning shot: if people do not vote at all, Georgia's claims to be democratic will ring hollow.