Elections in Georgia: Why the Stakes Are So High

Monday's vote determines the future of Rose Revolution.

georgia-election-2012David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

More than any national election since 1990, the Georgian parliamentary election to be held on October 1 is a potential major turning point in the country's history.

At one level, the election is a naked struggle for power in which President Mikheil Saakashvili's embattled United National Movement (ENM) has resorted to increasingly desperate measures to neutralize the threat posed by the opposition Georgian Dream bloc headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili. But it is also, as Thomas de Waal pointed out in a recent interview, a referendum on the relative credentials and credibility of Ivanishvili and the ENM.

According to de Waal the poll also represents an opportunity for Georgians to demonstrate their commitment to democratization. He maintains that it offers them a chance to break free from the lingering Soviet-era mindset that opts to play safe by voting for the ruling party. If this happens, it could bring about Georgia's first-ever post-Soviet peaceful and constitutional transition of power.

A total of 14 parties and two blocs have registered to compete for 150 parliamentary mandates (77 under the proportional party-list system and 73 in single-mandate constituencies ). Three opposition parties - United Georgia, Georgia's Path, and the Greens - opted not to run against Georgian Dream. The general consensus among observers is that, apart from the ENM and Georgian Dream, only the Christian Democrats bloc and possibly the New Rightists and the populist Labor Party stand a chance of winning parliamentary representation.

For the first time since Saakashvili's advent to power as a result of the November 2003 Rose Revolution, and despite the passage last year of a new election law that tips the odds in its favor, the ENM is facing the prospect of forfeiting power.

That possibility is all the more alarming in light of the passage in 2010 of a new constitution that transfers many of the presidential prerogatives to the prime minister, effectively reducing the president to a figurehead. Consequently, the party that controls parliament gets to appoint the country's most powerful official.

'Intense' Reprisals

Saakashvili's second and final term expires in January 2013. It is not yet known who the ENM will select as its candidate in the ballot for his successor, or indeed in what capacity Saakashvili intends to continue his participation in politics.

Even before campaigning officially began, the authorities sought ways to minimize the influence of Ivanishvili, who entered national politics less than a year ago, affirming his intention to win this year's election and become prime minister.

They slapped multi-million dollar fines on Georgian Dream for imputed violations of legislation on party funding, a move that led a visiting Parliamentary Assembly delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to deplore what it termed the "selective" imposition of "disproportionate" and "harsh" penalties "without clear or transparent guidelines."

The authorities also confiscated thousands of satellite dishes imported by the Maestro TV channel on the grounds that Maestro planned to distribute them free-of-charge as part of a clandestine deal with companies Ivanishvili owns in what the Prosecutor-General's office termed an attempt at vote-buying.

The NGO This Affects You Too responded with a strongly-worded statement that characterized the reprisals against Georgian Dream as "unprecedented in their intensity and scale" and accused the ENM of showing no interest in creating a "level playing field" for parties participating in the election.

EU, OSCE Concerns

Still, Saakashvili continued to affirm that the election will be "the freest and most transparent in Georgia's post-independence history."

Predictably, the election campaign has been, according to the OSCE, increasingly "polarized," "confrontational and rough," with the focus at times "on the advantages of incumbency, on the one hand, and private financial resources, on the other, rather than on concrete political platforms." The European Union has expressed similar concern, stressing that "elections should be first of all about political programs and ideas."

Presented by

Liz Fuller is an analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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