Georgia Ruling Party Cements Power

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 22 15:15:57 UTC 2008

May 23, 2008
Georgia Ruling Party Cements Power

MOSCOW As vote counts were being tallied on Thursday, the ruling party in
Georgia had a commanding lead in the Parliamentary elections held the
previous day, cementing President Mikheil Saakashvili and his partys place
as the nations preeminent political force. With two thirds of the polling
precincts reporting, Mr. Saakashvilis United National Movement partys had
more than 62 percent of the vote, Levan Tarkhnishvili, the head of the
central election commission, said by telephone. The ruling partys main
opponent, the United Opposition bloc, had slightly more than 14 percent.

The opposition complained of irregularities in both the campaign and the
vote, and vowed to challenge the results. But the wide margin suggested
that Mr. Saakashvili, his reputation as a democrat and a reformer
tarnished by a police crackdown against unarmed protestors and an
opposition television station last November, would maintain his
unchallenged hold on the countrys politics and course.

Mr. Tarkhnishvili said he hoped that the full preliminary results would be
released during the night, and both the opposition and the ruling party
were awaiting the report from the principal international election
observation mission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe. Even before the results and assessments were in, Mr. Saakashvili
claimed victory, and said the support was larger than he had predicted. I
didn't expect to recover so well after the political crisis we had last
year, he said by telephone. We wanted a new mandate for reforms, and it
looks like we've got it.

Three parties beside United National Movement appeared to pass the 5
percent threshold required to gain seats in Parliament. But even if the
opposition parries were to form a coherent coalition, they appeared
destined to lack the seats to be a counterweight to Mr. Saakashvilis rule.
Mr. Saakashvili, a lawyer educated at Columbia University, came to power
after a peaceful revolution overthrew the government of former President
Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003. He has been staunchly pro-Western, seeking
access to the European Union and NATO and sending troops to the
American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The countrys once stagnant
economy has partly revived during his years in power, although poverty and
unemployment remain pervasive, especially in rural areas.

Mr. Saakashvili has also pushed his small nation in the Caucasus onto the
global stage, as tensions with neighboring Russia have surged during his
presidency. The tensions are related in part to his effort to pull
Russian-supported breakaway regions in Georgia back under federal control,
but also because he has been a steady and vocal critic of both the
Kremlins regional dominance and of the Soviet past. There have been signs
of disaffection at home, however, since his rise to the presidency in the
role of revolutionary hero.

His opponents say that power has changed him, and that he has become
arrogant and intolerant of dissent and rules the country through a small
circle of insiders, some of whom are corrupt. Mr. Saakashvilis Georgia,
his critics say, lacks the balance of powers of a healthy democratic
system, and is run by cliquish Caucasus rules. Giorgi Targamadze, head of
the opposition Christian-Democratic Movement of Georgia, a new political
party, said that Parliamentary election suffered from ballot-stuffing for
the government and the suppression of votes for the opposition.

Unfortunately this election was in the same tradition as bad past
elections, he said. He said in some cases the misconduct was not an
election problem but a serious crime. The initial tallies suggested his
party had received about 8.5 percent of the vote enough for seats in
Parliament, but less than what Mr. Targamadze said was the 14 or 15
percent he expected based on surveys of voters leaving the polls. A former
news anchor at the Imedi-TV station, which was raided by the police during
the crackdown last year and forced off the air, he called on the president
to reach out to the opposition and include them in governing the country.

Saakashvili must do something to restore the trust of political parties,
he said, suggesting that the ruling partys landslide victory had in part
been rigged. Mr. Saakashvili, who has never hidden his disdain for the
opposition, acknowledged a decline in his support since 2003, but
suggested that the population saw him and his government as the most
competent choice. People are basically ready to give my government another
chance, he said. He added, however, that the days of his soaring approval
ratings are past.  The support is lot less euphoric and much more sober,
he said.

The Parliamentary election had been framed by diplomats and analysts as an
important test of whether Georgias ruling party and Mr. Saakashvili could
restore their now checkered reputations after the crackdown in the fall,
and after Mr. Saakashvilis victory in snap presidential election earlier
this year. He received 52 percent of that vote narrowly topping the
required 50 percent amid allegations that his party had rigged the small
margin of victory to avoid a potentially damaging run-off. Giga Bokeria, a
deputy foreign minister and one of Mr. Saakashvilis closest confidants,
said by telephone that the ruling party believed the Parliamentary
election would be a step toward rebuilding international support. It was,
as I hoped, better than the last election, he said. I think anybody who
has more or less been closely following Georgia has been reassured.


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