As Georgia prepares for parliamentary elections on November 2, observers are worried about the breakdown of the electoral system. The uncertainty surrounding the vote raises concerns about post-election violence.
While few observers expect widespread instability to follow the vote, trends from neighboring South Caucasus countries have made Georgians apprehensive about the possibility of fraud. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The controversial presidential election in Azerbaijan devolved quickly into violence. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgia's parliamentary campaign has already been marked by turmoil. In one of the latest incidents, a candidate from the Union for Democratic Revival of Georgia, a regional party led by Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze, announced October 30 that his opponents had kidnapped him and hurled him into a river. The most prominent instance of violence was the October 23 clash between activists of Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement and authortities in Ajaria. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The For a New Georgia bloc, the party that now serves as President Eduard Shevardnadze's power base, is trailing in polls. However, the pro-presidential party is availing itself of "administrative resources" in a determined bid to stay in power. Government officials and provincial governors see it as their duty to endorse the bloc. Meanwhile, various ministries are extolling their accomplishments in daily ads broadcast on state television. At the same time, Shevardnadze made it clear in an
October 29 statement that security forces would be on alert against post-election violence.
"The state has the necessary force to prevent any illegal street action, be it a rally, demonstration or anything else," the president said in an October 29 televised interview. "If they are illegal and unauthorized, of course the state will do what it has to do and prove what it is worth."
Disarray surrounding the administration of the election could serve as a potential spark for instability. Despite technical support from the International Foundation for Election Systems, election officials will be forced to rely on hand-compiled voter lists. This is likely to vault the error rate above 20 percent. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Virtually every major party competing in the parliamentary vote has at one time or another threatened not to recognize the election results due to discrepancies in the voter lists and other complaints. For now, such threats have subsided. But losing parties are likely to use this argument to challenge the outcome. If enough parties reject the official results, the country may face serious political crisis.
The judiciary has maintained a neutral image in handling the election registration appeals, which may help to resolve post-election disputes. More significantly, the jigsaw puzzle of the Georgian parties has become easier to categorize. Only six parties seem likely to clear the election threshold. Revival and For a New Georgia represent the interests of incumbents. Other groups, while still disorganized, may bring new perspective to policy debates. The New National Movement is a radical opposition party, urging drastic change in the effort to curb corruption and promote growth. The Labor Party seeks to draw votes from the left, while the BUrjanadze-Democrats and the New Rights Party are targeting the country's nascent middle class.
The promise of years' worth of robust debate makes the November 2 election even more pivotal. Most party leaders are younger than 45. If elections come and go without destroying Georgians' faith in the political process, these parties and their methods could mature before the next general elections in 2007.
Jaba Devdariani is a Human Rights Officer with the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina and a longtime journalist in Georgia.