|Georgia: Governing Party to Rely on Star Power as it Aims to Dominate Next Parliament|
|April 11, 2008|
April 11, 2008
With less than two months to go before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, attention is focusing on whether or not President Mikheil Saakashvili’s governing party will opt to change its “face” to keep its majority in parliament. With four prominent business executives tapped to represent the party at the polls, some observers believe that a makeover is already in the works.
Complete party lists will not be released until April 21, but some political observers believe the incomplete lists are a clear indication that the United National Movement -- recently renamed as the United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia -- is rethinking its strategy for the May 21 vote.
According to the country’s amended election code, the new parliament will have just 150 seats -- down from an inflated 235 -- which will be divided into 75 single mandate (majoritarian) seats and 75 seats distributed among contending parties based on a proportional vote.
Leading opposition figures are already down for a range of the 75 first-past-the-post races, but longstanding political celebrities from the United National Movement remain in the shadows.
The new parliament will contain 10 representatives from Tbilisi, elected in first-past-the-post races, and one each for Batumi, Rustavi, Kutaisi, and Poti, the country’s remaining large cities. Races for the remaining 61 individual-candidate seats are scattered among the country’s rural areas.
Even less information is available about the United National Movement’s party list. Malkhaz Matsaberidze, a professor of political science at Tbilisi State University, believes that the ruling party is bowing to public pressure and moving some of the most outspoken and combative of its members to the background in an attempt to win back some of its old supporters.
“People who actively participated in the [Rose] revolution have been pushed back and their place has been freed for the businessmen,” Matsaberidze said. He was referring to such figures as MPs Giga Bokeria and Givi Targamadze, two of the most outspoken and combative United National Movement members, whose role was downplayed during the January presidential campaign. “There will be writers, athletes, [on the party list] and that speaks of a political crisis… [R]eal politicians -- people do not trust them in parliament.”
There are at least four prominent business figures slated to represent the ruling party and unconfirmed media reports indicate that some former athletes and singers have also been tapped.
The breakdown of seats nearly led to a political crisis in March when opposition groups started an 18-day hunger strike in protest at the new parliament’s seat structure, which they believe gives the United National Movement a strong advantage.
Based on the outcome of the January presidential election, the United National Movement seems to have a clear advantage in the regions. While lead opposition presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze won Tbilisi, he held only one region -- Kazbegi, in eastern Georgia -- outside of the capital.
Keti Makharadze, a parliamentarian sympathetic to the opposition, agrees that the United National Movement is on a quest for “the right” faces. Referring to the disparity in urban-rural first past-the-post races, Makharadze said: “Half of the Georgian population chooses 14 and the other half chooses 61. So the math is very simple,” she said. ““If they [the United National Movement] find the right people, the right individuals, they will get [votes].”
The logistics of creating the United National Movement party list, she continued, is as much about popularity as it is about politics. “People who create a very negative reaction in the public will not be there [on the party list],” she said.
However, Irakli Kavtaradze, a deputy chairman of the parliamentary defense committee and the United National Movement’s international secretary, denies that popularity is a factor for the party. “Popularity or unpopularity is not viewed. If those people were very effective and if the party will decide they are leaders of the party, it is up to party leadership to decide which way they will go,” he said.
Those party loyalists not making the election list will be taken care of, most likely obtaining an appointive government post, Kavtaradze added. Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze will head up the party’s list of candidates.
Opposition-friendly Georgian newspapers have reported recently that Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze, Justice Minister Nika Gvaramia and General Prosecutor Eka Tqeshelashvili will be leaving their posts to run for parliament. On April 7, Foreign Minister Bakradze announced that United National Movement old guard member Giga Bokeria will be appointed deputy foreign minister; pro-opposition papers have named Bokeria as a likely replacement for Foreign Minister Bakradze, but the reports have not been confirmed.
With the future role of the party’s traditional leaders unclear, the United National Movement has turned to the business community to fill the ranks. Archil Gegenava, a member of the supervisory board of the Teliani Valley wine producing company, is one of four leading business executives running for a majoritarian seat with the United National Movement. “We have a good opportunity to use our experience that we received from business in politics,” Gegenava said about the decision in an interview with EurasiaNet.
Kavtaradze expressed the belief that entrepreneurs in parliament could bring new momentum to the governing party’s legislative agenda. “Those people are people of action,” he said. “They have good experience running a business; we think they will be in a good position to run their districts.”
Matsaberidze, the political scientist, suggested that Saakashvili is taking a risk. He pointed out that in 1999 a group of entrepreneurs entered parliament, including Gachechiladze and New Rights Party leader Davit Gamkrelidze, and they quickly turned on their patron, former president Eduard Shevardnadze. “Businessmen are very ambitious and I don’t think that, if the United National Movement will bring 70 businessmen into the parliament, they will always listen to Saakashvili,” Matsaberidze said.
Teliani Valley’s Gegenava stressed that while he supports the ruling party, he is only associated with them during the election because he cannot run as an independent under a new election law.
“Of course, I have my own ambition to be in politics, but, according to Georgian law, a Georgian majoritarian [candidate] has to be elected from one of the existing parties,” he said, adding that although he considered other political parties, the United National Movement was on the same “railway” with his priorities; namely, creating jobs.
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