|A free and fair vote? Georgia's political parties see things differently|
|May 21, 2008|
May 21, 2008
Georgian officials are insisting that the May 21 parliamentary voting in Georgia occurred under "normal conditions." But nothing seems to satisfy the country’s querulous opposition leaders, who, even before the polls had closed, began lodging complaints about vote-rigging.
For a government bent on closer ties with the West and eventual membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the May 21 vote posed an important test – one that President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration was eager to pass. The Saakashvili administration’s reformist credentials were seriously tarnished by the turmoil that led to the imposition of a state of emergency last November 7. An early presidential vote this January was billed as a first step toward the rehabilitation of Georgia’s reputation for democratization. A clean parliamentary vote was seen as the means of confirming the government’s commitment to building civil society in Georgia.
With those stakes in mind, Saakashvili appeared to reach out to opposition parties in remarks to reporters after casting his ballot in downtown Tbilisi. "Today is a very big victory for Georgia," he told journalists. "We want to organize the spirit of engagement and cooperation and, as a result, build trust in the parliamentary system."
He noted that he "counted on" the governing National Movement Party to garner the majority of seats in the legislature, but added that "we are ready to involve everybody because that is the only way to move forward."
According to early exit polls run by a coalition of think tanks and universities for Georgian television stations, the governing party looked set to retain a commanding majority in parliament. According to the available data, the National Movement captured roughly 63 percent of the vote. The main opposition coalition challenging the governing party received an estimated 14 percent. Opposition leaders dismissed the findings, characterizing the exit polling results, which were based on interviews with 6,000 voters, government-backed charade. Preliminary official election results are expected early May 22.
Saakashvili congratulated Georgians for remaining calm, despite political "blackmail" by unnamed enemies. He was apparently referring to the recent tensions between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway region of Abkhazia. On May 21, a shooting incident reportedly involved Abkhaz and Georgian forces. Two buses reportedly carrying Georgian voters from Abkhazia into the neighboring region of Samegrelo were struck by rocket-propelled grenades, Georgian television reported.
Despite the president’s apparent overture to his critics, opposition parties didn’t waste any time in attacking the elections as fraudulent. Davit Gamkrelidze, a leader of the nine-party United Opposition Movement (UOM) and a candidate from Tbilisi’s central Vake district, called the elections "criminal."
During a news conference at his New Rights Party headquarters in Tbilisi, Gamkrelidze alleged that opposition supporters had been assaulted throughout the regions. A leading politician in the UOM, Koba Davitashvili, was allegedly attacked in the western city of Zugdidi. However, the International Society for Free and Fair Elections, which had observers in Zugdidi, could not confirm the report. Television footage only showed a yelling incident between Davitashvili and an unidentified man, whom the political leader pushed out of a polling station.
Gamkrelidze also claimed an opposition supporter was shot and killed near a voting station in the western region of Samegrelo, although the Central Election Commission ardently denied any connection between the election and the shooting.
Gamkrelidze, who has emerged as the United Opposition’s regular spokesperson, claimed more than 100 violations had been reported to opposition representatives by 2 pm on May 21. He went on to call for the voting results in 12 precincts to be annulled. "The main problem today for this election is the terror from the side of the ruling party," Gamkrelidze said in response to a question from EurasiaNet.
Not waiting for the preliminary results to be announced, UOM leaders announced that they would hold a rally in front of the Central Election Commission at 11pm local time to "prevent fraud."
Opposition figures outside of the UOM have also indicated that the election is marred by fraud; according to a televised announcement by Republican Party Leader Davit Usupashvili, there were serious problems with the voter lists, including hundreds of false identity documents being used to secure ballots.
A representative from the Central Election Commission told EurasiaNet that it was too early to either confirm or deny the allegations of violations. "Alleged violations are not as numerous as claimed by the opposition parties, but there should be, first of all, evidence [presented]. And, of course, if the complaints are launched at a precinct level, they should be duly examined," spokesperson Zurab Kachkachishvili said.
He added that "the Central Election Commission cannot react to complaints lodged at this level."
Officials from the governing party, the National Movement for a Victorious Georgia, were quick to denounce the opposition allegations of fraud. Former Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze -- now the number one candidate on the National Movement’s party list -- accused opposition leaders of promoting personal concerns over the best interests of the state. "At all those polling stations, where the opposition is not superficially aggravating the situation, the elections are going very well," Bakradze said in televised remarks. He added that "of course" there are violations that "need" to be addressed.
Bakradze also attacked the opposition in response to reports that opposition commission members from five precinct election commissions in Lagodekhi, a town in eastern Georgia bordering Russia, walked out of a voting station in protest at alleged "grave" violations. "We think this is a sign that the opposition is not interested in elections, election results, or democratic vote counting, but instead it is interested in what they plan after the elections," he said.
Commission observers in two polling stations in Tbilisi told EurasiaNet that there were few complaints and no major violations on election day. Mari Beruashvili, the head of the precinct commission at the No. 11 polling station in Krtsanisi, a Tbilisi suburb with a strong armed forces presence, said she had been threatened by a few anonymous telephone calls early in the day, although she had "no clue" about which party made the calls or why they were threatening her.
"It’s rather tense. The last election was more calm, few provocations," she said.
Other observers at the polling station, like Eteri Chertiashvili, a representative for the opposition Republican Party, had no concerns about the voting procedures.
Giorgi Chkheidze, head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, a local non-government organization observing the elections, reported that the situation in Tbilisi was "better" than in the rest of the country, where there were several reported incidents, including a stolen ballot box and alleged cases of ballot stuffing.
Editor’s Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.
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