|Georgia President Aided by Mayoral Election|
|May 31, 2010|
By ELLEN BARRY
MOSCOW — Voters in Georgia’s capital city on Sunday appeared to overwhelmingly endorse President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling party in municipal elections, barely a year after opposition parties had thronged the streets vowing to force him from office.
Last summer, Mr. Saakashvili declared that the mayor of Tbilisi would for the first time be directly elected by voters, and moved up nationwide local elections from October to May. The changes were part of a package of reforms intended to placate opposition leaders, who blamed him for leading the country into war with Russia. The race in Tbilisi, in particular, has been seen as an indicator of who may run to succeed Mr. Saakashvili when his term ends in 2013.
Early exit poll results gave an overwhelming lead to the incumbent mayor, Gigi Ugulava, a longtime political ally of Mr. Saakashvili’s. Mr. Ugulava had about 60 percent of the popular vote, according to the United States polling company Edison Research. His strongest challenger, a former diplomat, Irakli Alasania, trailed with about 17 percent of the vote, Edison’s poll showed.
As they trickled out of polling stations on a sleepy Sunday, voters said Mr. Ugulava had won their support because they had seen concrete improvements in their lives.
“He’s done everything — the roads, everything,” said Zura Pirskhalava, a 53-year-old taxi driver, gesturing at the city’s tree-lined central avenue. “Look how beautiful Tbilisi is. He and Saakashvili have done this.”
The race has deflated the expectations of Georgia’s opposition, which counts Tbilisi, home to more than a quarter of the electorate, as its most important stronghold. Ghia Nodia, a political analyst, said that opposition leaders set the stakes too high last year when they promised to oust Mr. Saakashvili. “If the opposition cannot even win the Tbilisi mayoral election, it certainly cannot win nationally,” Mr. Nodia said.
Mr. Alasania said late Sunday night that exit polls “do not give a real picture,” and that he was waiting for a final vote count. But Mr. Saakashvili rejoiced at his ally’s headquarters, telling reporters, “It’s a really beautiful day in Georgia.”
“We are still far from what a real political life, real correctness, real battle of opinions, real election campaigns should be in a developed European country,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks posted on the Web site civil.ge. “But a step has really been taken in this direction — much more concrete discussion, more talk about issues, comparatively less swearing. Comparatively less swearing at the president.”
The race is being watched closely by international observers as a measure of Mr. Saakashvili’s democratic credentials, which he has been working to shore up since a violent crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators in 2007.
In a report earlier this month, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported a “lack of balance” in television coverage, saying that the two most popular channels broadcast glowing coverage of Mr. Ugulava’s daily activities and that paid advertising was so expensive that he was the only candidate able to afford spots.
The prelude to the campaign has been accompanied by a feverish public works campaign in the capital, including construction of a major new thoroughfare and a sparkling glass bridge across the Mtkvari River. The anticorruption organization Transparency International complained in March of an “unprecedented increase” in municipal spending ahead of the vote, noting that pensions were raised in Tbilisi but not elsewhere.
Mr. Ugulava responded sharply, saying no state money was being used for campaigning.
“Should we suspend pensions, stop bus service, cancel garbage pickup and shut down the kindergartens whenever there is an election approaching, just because these efforts are popular?” he said in a written statement. “That would be a very odd notion of democracy.”
After Sunday’s voting, attention is likely to shift to the question of who will succeed Mr. Saakashvili in January 2013. The 42-year-old president, who combines a flair for the grand gesture with seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy, has dominated Georgia’s political scene since the day seven years ago when he stormed Parliament on live television and ordered his predecessor to step aside.
Mr. Saakashvili’s reputation as a democratic reformer was hurt in November 2007 by the crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators. He had mostly recovered from that crisis in August of 2008, when, after a long buildup of tensions, he ordered an attack on Russian-backed separatists in the enclave of South Ossetia. Moscow then seized control of South Ossetia and another enclave, Abkhazia, and declared them sovereign countries.
Observers who had expected Mr. Saakashvili’s support to collapse after the 2008 war were proved wrong; over the last year, his party, the United National Movement, has largely regained the popularity it had before the war. But there are fundamental tensions in the electorate nonetheless. An April survey of 2,378 people by the National Democratic Institute, an American nonprofit organization that supports democratic institutions, showed that 52 percent of the voters disagreed with Georgia’s policy toward Russia and 46 percent said the country was not a democracy. The poll, which consisted of face-to-face interviews, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
After voting with his wife, Mr. Saakashvili called Sunday’s elections the smoothest in Georgia’s history. He complimented the opposition’s “political maturity,” but predicted that his party would continue to rack up victories.
“This should come as a surprise to no one,” he told reporters. “I want to say that the National Movement will win elections as long as it is a true movement, as long as it does not stop moving, as long as the country is moving toward a better life.”
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