Georgian reformists hope to use local elections on June 2 to establish a power base for a national campaign. But political maneuvers in Tbilisi and beyond have made the elections, and the 2003 general elections, anybody's game.
The June 2 vote will select city and town councils across Georgia. The elections are being closely watched, even though they are not expected to enhance local governing authority. Most crucial political positions will continue to be occupied by presidential appointees and elected councils will not have much influence. However, experts say the elections will shape national politics in at least two respects: they will be a litmus test of public support before 2003 and will give the winner some control over the capital via the Tbilisi city council.
In recent months, serious shifts have occurred in Georgia's partisan political landscape [for background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As a result, President Eduard Shevardnadze's former power base, the Citizens' Union of Georgia (CUG) from which he resigned in September 2001 has disintegrated. Once a presidential ruling party, the CUG now has split into a pro-Shevardnadze wing and an anti-presidential faction, pitting each side against the other. [For background see the EurasiaNet Q&A archive]. For Shevardnadze's critics, led by former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, the local elections will help to determine their popularity. The embattled Shevardnadze, for his part, hopes the vote will bolster him politically. Accusations of vote rigging already mar the campaign, hinting that the election will produce fallout for all of Georgia's prominent politicians.
Each leader has political credibility at stake. Zhvania's criticisms of Shevardnadze led the president to resign as party chairman. After that resignation, a group of "reformers" under the radical ex-justice minister Mikhail Saakashvili split from CUG to form an opposition "New National Movement." A small group under Zhvania's leadership stayed within CUG to oppose a pro-presidential faction, led by the influential governor Levan Mamaladze. Sticking seems to have cost Zhvania dearly, as it allowed Saakashvili to rally under anti-Shevardnadze slogans and draw media attention and public support as a chief opposition force. Saakashvili now plans to present a report on vote-rigging to the Council of Europe on election day.
Zhvania, having tried to bargain with CUG's pro-presidential faction, has been foundering. A new loose, pro-presidential majority managed to dismiss most of his supporters from leadership positions in parliamentary committees. Mamaladze also sued Zhvania, arguing that he had no right to lead CUG to the local elections, as he was not appointed by the party congress. A court upheld the suit, leaving Zhvania and his team broke and without a party a few weeks before elections. They joined a "Christian-Conservative Party" for the Tbilisi city council ballot, but stand very few chances for success and have few candidates in other districts. Shevardnadze has backed loyalist Lado Kakhadze, a former head of Tbilisi's city council. Any gain by Saakashvili's supporters, then, would add to his confrontation with the president.
Zhvania seems at a disadvantage after the court ruling. He has promised to set up a new party after the June 2 elections and began a May 9 interview with the Rustavi-2 television station by saying: "I must admit I do not know either how to introduce myself." Saakashvili and his "New National Movement" hope to secure a majority at the Tbilisi city council. Using the election slogan "Tbilisi without Shevardnadze," Saakashvili is playing to the capital's disgruntled masses. His rhetoric also attracts interest from supporters of former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a nationalist who served in Georgia's last years as a Soviet republic.
Meanwhile, smaller parties are jockeying for advantage. Analysts expect the New Rights Party, a well-funded group born as a split-off from the CUG in 2000, to perform strongly around the country; it has fielded more than 1,500 candidates all over Georgia. The New Rights' leadership consists of influential businessmen, but the party lacks a charismatic leader. Its pro-business message is foreign to most citizens living close to the poverty line. Accordingly, the Labor Party hopes to pick up many votes. Labor and its leader, Shalva Natelashvili, performed surprisingly well in the first local elections of 1999. The party emphasizes its outsider status, contrasting itself with Nationalist and New Right figures who are, or were represented in top echelons of the legislature and executive. Natelashvili has also criticized the government for deferring local elections in the breakaway Ajaria region. However, the Labor Party is essentially a one-man show. Lacking a stable party structure, Labor deputies have proven easy prey for bigger players. If the New Rights overwhelm Labor, the party's 1999 successes could evaporate.
What remains of CUG also faces the prospect of a serious setback, as it remains unclear whether Levan Mamaladze will run under the CUG standard. In dethroning Zhvania, Mamaladze has further damaged his party's reputation, which already repelled popular sympathy. But Mamaladze can expect to perform strongly in his province of Kvemo Kartli and maintain at least some votes.
The elections figure to reflect how fragmented Georgian politics have become. Most polls show the Nationalists, New Rights and Labor are leading the race, separated by narrow margins. But with 20 parties vying for 49 seats on Tbilisi's city council, the undecided voters who represent more than 20 percent of the electorate will probably determine most outcomes. Non-governmental activist groups and international agencies, expecting low turnout, are keen to bring people to the polling stations.
The campaign has featured confrontational rhetoric that threatens stability. Most analysts characterize the campaign as one of increasing radicalization. Even the moderate Zhvania called the current government a "corrupt swamp." This radical trend threatens Shevardnadze, who maintains his grip on the legislature only through extremely loose coalitions of individuals and small factions. While local elections will only determine preliminary candidates for parliamentary races, they will probably keep Georgian politics volatile and fractious into 2003. For Shevardnadze, whose last term expires in 2005, the June 2 contests may preview a divisive era in his country's politics.
Jaba Devdariani is a Founding Director of the UN Association of Georgia and editor of Civil Georgia - Internet magazine offering civil view on life in Georgia.