Chaotic Local Elections Yield Dubious Results in Georgia

By Jaba Devdariani, Reposted from Eurasia Insight

The results of Georgia’s municipal elections June 2 are embroiled in controversy. Local and international election observers found numerous voting irregularities, and a Council of Europe statement said that a “lack of proper preparation… dashed hopes that the elections would be fair.” The ballot controversy dealt a fresh blow to the political prestige of President Eduard Shevardnadze, who pledged a full government investigation.

Late on June 4, the Central Election Commission (CEC), bowing to pressure exerted by a variety of leading politicians, announced that a ballot recount would take place in Tbilisi, the capital, according to the Civil Georgia website. Leading Shevardnadze opponents, including former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, have accused the government of trying to rig the vote.

The most important and the most hotly contested vote is for Tbilisi City Council. According to the Election Commission, seven political parties cleared the 4 percent poll barrier to gain Tbilisi Council seats. The results appear certain to spark fresh political infighting for control of the Council, one of the most influential political bodies in Georgia.

The Labor Party, led by Shalva Natelashvili, received 26 percent of the vote, to lead all parties, followed by Saakashvili’s National Movement, with 24 percent. The right-of-center New Rights party finished third with 11.6 percent. A reformist slate led by former Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania, running under the Christian Conservative party banner, gained 7.4 percent. The other three parties to win seats were Industry Will Save Georgia, the Revival Union and the Unity Party, the Civil Georgia website reported.

Irregularities cast doubt on the reliability of results. For the first time since Georgia achieved independence in 1991, polling stations failed to open on time, turning back active early voters. In addition, the CEC failed to adequately train the chairpersons of the polling station committees. Irina Tsintsadze, a member of the monitoring NGO coalition “Your Choice – Your Future,” says many chairmen did not know elementary procedures for verifying ballots and had to void a substantial number of votes.

Observers also blamed violations in Tbilisi, the capital city, on poor organization. Whole apartment blocks were omitted from voting lists, which led political parties to accuse each other of vote-rigging and sparked popular protest at the polling stations. Parties have reported cases of ballot stuffing, illegal election propaganda and “carousel” voting in which people managed to vote twice in separate districts. In a most appalling incident, a group of unidentified gunmen stopped the van carrying ballot boxes en route from Tbilisi and stole the ballots from the city of Rustavi. As a result, elections in Rustavi were cancelled. Elections in the western city of Zugdidi also vanished, as ballots were not delivered on time.

While the legitimacy of the vote remains in doubt, some observers say the local elections nevertheless showed serious discontent with Shevardnadze and the government. All the parties gaining seats for the Tbilisi City Council are in opposition to the president. The pro-presidential faction of the Citizens Union, led by Levan Mamaladze, who enjoyed Shevardnadze’s endorsement, failed to clear the 4 percent threshold.

The results also indicate that Saakashvili’s National Movement and Zhvania’s Christian Conservatives are potentially powerful political challengers to Shevardnadze’s authority. Observers say that Saakashvili and Zhvania have different and complementary bases of popular support, meaning that a bloc endorsed by the two could perform very strongly in general elections – so long as those elections are fair.

At a rally June 3, Saakashvili and Zhvania demanded that the results of the previous day’s vote be annulled and new elections held. The also urged that all national and local officials responsible for the election fiasco be held accountable.

Prior to the elections, politicians and observers alike viewed the Tbilisi City Council vote as a testing ground for the political parties before the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2003. However, in the ballot aftermath, some are revising that view. The Labor Party is viewed by political observers as disorganized and unlikely to do well at a national election.

If the election results stand, a political battle for control of Tbilisi City Council is likely. The National Movement and the pro-business New Rights Party were the campaign’s bitterest rivals. The National Movement is likely to seek a political alliance with Zhvania’s Christian Conservatives. New Rights would seem likely to explore a coalition with Labor.