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For Georgian Voters, It's the Crowd Size That Matters

In the eyes of many Georgians, the size of a crowd of supporters is often a better yardstick of political popularity than opinion polls or the feasibility of campaign promises. The splashy convention staged by Georgia's ruling United National Movement party on Saturday was the latest round in the ongoing game of trying to outnumber the opponent ahead of the country's October 1 parliamentary vote.    
   
After watching scores of people wearing red-and-white UNM shirts stream into the Tbilisi Sports Palace, one swing voter predicted the party's certain victory -- even after making a similar prediction for billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition when it gathered a huge throng of supporters in downtown Tbilisi this May.

And he is not the only Georgian voter for whom campaign talk is reduced to background noise and the visual impressions matter the most.  

Along with chewing over the convention for news items, local wonks are also busy comparing how the count of red-and-white shirts compares with that of blue shirts for the Georgian Dream.

Depending where their loyalties lie, commentators speak of the UNM forcing public servants to show up at their events (the convention was headlined by ten UNM gatherings across Georgia) or of Ivanishvili allegedly bribing voters to attend his own rallies.

With a combined 43 percent of surveyed Georgians either undecided or refusing to speak of their political sympathies in a recent poll for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), crowd-gathering can arguably make a significant difference before the election hits 20 days from now.

The Saturday convention was also perused for fresh hints of who might be the party's pick to keep running with the torch once President Mikheil Saakashvili's term expires in 2013. Rumored heirs-apparent such as the ever-bustling Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, powerful Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili and soft-spoken Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze all made appearances at the podium.

Merabishvili, often credited for building an effective police force during his long-lasting term as interior minister, slipped narrowly ahead of President Saakashvili among the 2,038 voters surveyed in NDI's August poll -- 62 percent support versus 61 percent.

But, apparently, that standing wasn't enough to convince Ivanshvili to join the prime minister in last night's televised election debates; he insisted on Saakashvili's presence, instead.

In an apparent symbolic reproach for his absence, Georgian Pubic Television, which hosted the debates, left the billionaire's podium empty alongside those occupied by Merabishvili, Christian-Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili.

No post-debate polling was available, but in the National Democratic Institute survey, the UNM posted a solid 25-percentage-point lead over the Georgian Dream (12 percent).

The Ivanishvili team has dismissed those results as distorted by the public's supposed fear of retribution for voicing support for the Georgian Dream and by the government's alleged control of Georgia's national media.

For Georgian Voters, It's the Crowd Size That Matters

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