The FINANCIAL, Georgia
May 31 2008


Analysis: Is Georgian Opposition Still Force To Be Reckoned With?

31/05/2008 10:42

The FINANCIAL -- The Georgian parliamentary elections on May 21 gave
President Mikheil Saakashvili 's United National Movement for a
Victorious Georgia a constitutional majority in the new legislature,
but appear only to have perpetuated the political polarization that
resulted from the crackdown on opposition supporters last November and
the disputed preterm presidential ballot on January 5.

As in January, Saakashvili claimed victory for his party before all
votes were counted, on the basis of preliminary returns and exit
polls, while opposition leaders alleged that the outcome of the ballot
(in which only some 55 percent of the electorate bothered to cast
their votes) was falsified. Two of the three opposition parties that
won parliamentary representation under the proportional system
subsequently vowed to boycott the working of a parliament they
consider lacking legitimacy and to establish an alternative
parliament.

Meanwhile, international monitors concluded that not all problems
identified during the January 5 presidential election were rectified,
and termed the May 21 vote "not perfect" and not a true reflection of
Georgia's "democratic potential."

The preliminary official results of the ballot, made public on May 23,
gave Saakashvili 's party a total of 120 of the 150 mandates, 49 of
the 75 distributed under the proportional system and 71 of the 75
single-mandate constituencies. The nine parties aligned in the United
Opposition coalition won 16 seats (14 proportional, two majoritarian);
the Labor Party and the recently created Christian Democratic Movement
-- six proportional seats each; and the opposition Republicans -- two
seats in single-mandate constituencies.

That outcome represented an unpalatable defeat above all for the
moderate Republican Party, which had sought to portray itself as a
less radical and more constructive alternative than the sometimes
strident and maximalist United Opposition coalition.

Yet both the distribution of votes and the level of voter
participation closely parallel that in the January 5 presidential
ballot, in which Saakashvili polled 53.47 percent and Levan
Gachechiladze of the United Opposition 25.6 percent, followed by
now-deceased exiled oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili (7.1 percent) and
Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili (6.49 percent). It thus seems
that some opposition voters who opted in January for Gachechiladze or
Patarkatsishvili transferred their support to the new Christian
Democratic Movement, while others voted for the ruling party.

Opposition Boycott Questioned

The nine opposition parties aligned in the United Opposition coalition
rejected the official returns as rigged and announced on May 23 they
would not participate in the working of a legislature whose members
Conservative Party leader Kakha Kukadze claimed were handpicked by
Saakashvili , civil.ge reported. They further pledged to campaign for
the annulment of the vote and the holding of new elections, as they
had done, without success, in the wake of the disputed January
presidential poll.

Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili said on May 23 that his party
would join the proposed boycott, but one of its elected deputies,
Nugzar Ergemlidze, was quoted by Caucasus Press on May 24 as saying he
feels bound to protect the interests of his voters.

Giorgi Targamadze, leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, the
third opposition group to win parliamentary representation under the
proportional system, argued on May 22 that "We have been given
parliamentary mandates by 200,000 of our voters, who cast their ballot
for us and tasked us with implementation of concrete steps," Caucasus
Press reported. The following day, Targamadze similarly said, "we
should not go to extremes" and that "all resources should be used,"
meaning the chance, however slim, to influence the legislative
process, civil.ge reported.

On May 28, Pikria Chikhradze, a leading member of the United
Opposition, told journalists that those of its candidates who won
election will nonetheless comply with all the formal requirements,
including undergoing a drug test, needed to take possession of their
mandates, Caucasus Press reported.

Addressing some 10,000 people who rallied outside the parliament
building on May 26, United Opposition leader Gachechiladze,
Saakashvili 's main challenger in the January presidential ballot,
issued an ultimatum to the authorities to annul the outcome of the May
21 vote, failing which he pledged continued protests and a boycott of
the new parliament. He further said the opposition "will not let a
handful of criminals run the country," and appealed to the rally
participants to reassemble on June 10 and form a human chain around
the parliament building to prevent the new parliament convening for
its first session.

But at its May 26 session, the Central Election Commission annulled
the results only from 26 of the 3,604 polling stations, Caucasus Press
reported. As of May 29, the results at 13 more polling stations have
been annulled, according to civil.ge.

Speaking on May 26 at a joint press conference in Tbilisi with
visiting Polish President Lech Kaczynski, President Saakashvili
invited the opposition to engage in "dialogue," stressing that "the
minority should respect the will of the majority," and that "the
parliament has been elected...[and] will defend the interests of the
whole of Georgia regardless of whether some people voted for it or
not," civil.ge reported.

Lack Of Dialogue

He did not repeat his offer of May 20 to work more closely with the
new parliament, and to "spare no efforts to ensure that the opposition
plays a more active role in the process of ruling the country, to
reduce polarization and confrontation in our politics, to make
meetings and negotiations more fruitful and desirable for everyone,
rather than protest rallies." Nor did he offer, as his Armenian
counterpart Serzh Sarkisian did in the wake of the disputed February
21 Armenian presidential election, to forge a government of national
reconciliation.

The United Opposition immediately rejected Saakashvili 's offer of
dialogue: leading Conservative Party member Zviad Dzidzugiri told
journalists that "we have nothing to discuss with a president who
rigged the elections and deprived the Georgian people of the right to
vote for the leadership they want," Caucasus Press reported.

Parallel to the boycott, the Republican and Labor parties and eight of
the nine parties aligned in the United Opposition bloc plan to convene
an alternative parliament, which will be based in the former election
headquarters in Tbilisi of the New Rightists, who belong to the United
Opposition. But Paata Davitaia announced on May 27 that the small
Chven Tviton (We Ourselves) party he heads does not support the idea
of an alternative parliament and for that reason will quit the
opposition coalition, Caucasus Press reported.

Nor is it clear either what the opposition hopes to achieve through
the alternative legislature, or how an opposition boycott will impact
on the work of the parliament elected on May 21. True, the idea of a
boycott is not new: several opposition parties boycotted parliament
for several months two years ago. But a long-term boycott could lead
to a loss of both visibility and credibility among the parties
involved, as has proven the case in Azerbaijan, where the opposition
Azadliq bloc refused its handful of parliament mandates to protest
egregious fraud in the November 2005 parliamentary election.

The daily "Rezonansi" on May 26 quoted election-law expert Vakhtang
Khmaladze, an unsuccessful Republican Party candidate in a Tbilisi
constituency, as observing that a total opposition boycott would call
into question the legitimacy of the new parliament insofar as it would
focus attention on the opposition's motives, namely what he termed
grave procedural violations on polling day. Possibly for that reason,
several leading National Movement members and one government minister
have slammed both the proposed parliament boycott and the concept of
an alternative parliament.

Already on May 23, former Foreign Minister David Bakradze, the first
name on the United National Movement party list and thus the obvious
candidate for the post of parliament speaker, decried the proposed
boycott as irresponsible, civil.ge reported. He added that the
National Movement is prepared to begin talks with the opposition on
the distribution of parliamentary posts.

On May 24, Giorgi Gabashvili, one of the National Movement's
representatives on the Central Election Commission, argued that an
opposition boycott would be tantamount to betraying the trust of the
320,000 voters who cast their ballots for the opposition, and that it
reflects the "low political culture" of the opposition parties in
question, Caucasus Press reported. State Minister for Regional Issues
David Tkeshelashvili was quoted on May 27 by Caucasus Press as
branding the idea of an alternative parliament "very dangerous," and
he warned that it could "throw the country back 15 years."

In the final analysis, however, the opposition's options are limited,
and some of its members may consider they committed a major strategic
error in January in yielding to pressure from U.S. Deputy Assistant
Secretary of State Matthew Bryza to abandon their campaign for the
annulment of the presidential election results and treat the
parliamentary vote as a surrogate runoff between the ruling party and
the opposition.

In a trenchant analysis of the Georgian political situation three
years ago, commentator Ghia Nodia made two crucial points that are
still relevant today. He noted that the Georgian opposition was weak
not only because it was divided and had few parliament mandates, but
because it lacked popular leaders and ideas capable of mobilizing the
population at large. (The United Opposition's parliamentary election
campaign focused primarily on the need to replace what its members
consider a corrupt and inept leadership.)

Consequently, Nodia continued, the opposition pinned its hopes on, and
sought to capitalize on, public dissatisfaction with government
policy, a tactic that Saakashvili and Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze
have countered by adopting in the wake of the January presidential
ballot a government program explicitly designed to reduce poverty and
unemployment.

And second, Nodia pointed to a "communication breakdown" within the
political elite in which government and opposition "simply do not
speak to each other anymore," with politicians instead engaging in
"monologues" that frequently stoop to the realm of personal
insults. In that respect, the current postelection polarization in
Georgia could prove pernicious insofar as the one figure who sought
tirelessly to bridge the gulf between the authorities and the
opposition, former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, declined to
seek reelection.

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller