Heated Election Challenges Saakashvili’s Grip on Power

The opposition accuses the Georgian president’s ruling party of authoritarianism.

Georgians head to the polls on Monday in a fiercely contested parliamentary election that is dominated by the Caucasus nation’s relations with neighboring Russia and concern about the state of political freedoms under the leadership of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili’s United National Movement and the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, are both liberally conservative. The ruling party, which currently holds nearly 80 percent of the seats in parliament, has accused Ivanishvili of being a stooge of Russian president Vladimir Putin, however, who supposedly poured billions into his election campaign. The former businessman, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, denies that he is a “Kremlin project” and vows to repair ties with Moscow, but not at the expense of the country’s Western orientation.

Despite an average 6 percent economic growth rate in recent years, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 16.5 percent. Two-thirds of those between the ages of twenty and 24 are out of work.

Saakashvili nevertheless warns that the situation will be worse if the opposition wins the election. “Never before have we stood before such a choice,” he told tens of thousands of supporters in the capital city of Tbilisi last week.

To go back to the crime bosses and to being an impoverished country with no electricity and no roads or to go forward.

The Georgian Dream coalition, composed of six parties, is committed to reversing the “authoritarian trends” of Saakashvili’s government. Its criticism of his administration is backed up by Human Rights Watch which reports that the state uses “excessive force to disperse anti-government protests” and has “prosecuted dozens in misdemeanor trials without full respect for due process rights.”

All news broadcasts were banned in 2007 with the exception of the state funded Georgia Public Broadcasting and martial law was temporarily imposed that year, allegedly to stave off a coup. Two pro-government television channels have since been allowed to broadcast as well.

The United States, which consider Georgia an ally, have “failed to use their leverage to secure human rights improvements,” according to Human Rights Watch, even if the State Department recognizes that the situation has far from improved under Saakashvili’s presidency. It lists reports of “deaths due to excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, cases of torture and mistreatment of detainees, increased abuse of prisoners, impunity, continued overuse of pretrial detention for less serious offenses, worsened conditions in prisons and pretrial detention facilities and lack of access for average citizens to defense attorneys.” Recent revelations of prison abuse and torture suggest that little has changed.

With 224,000 inmates, Georgia has four times as many of its citizens incarcerated as when Saakashvili was first elected in 2004, the highest prison population per capita rate in Europe.

Under Georgia’s new constitution, the bulk of the president’s powers will be delegated to the prime minister. Saakashvili’s second and final presidential term ends next year. He claims that he doesn’t seek the prime ministership but whoever controls parliament after Monday’s election will be in a position to elect the premier in late 2013.

The United National Movement and Georgian Dream accuse each other of trying to rig the vote. The opposition believes that the ruling party will use “massive falsification” of the ballot to win. Saakashvili’s party charges that the coalition is engaged in “voting buying” and plans “mass destabilization” after the election to seize power.

Little wonder that the International Crisis Group’ Lawrence Sheets is worried that “the losing party will refuse to concede defeat.”

In the current atmosphere of frenetic drama, this might set off confrontations that turn violent or provide an opportunity for trouble makers to destabilize the country.

The election spectacle takes places against the backdrop of a “buildup of Russian Federation armed personnel” along the South Ossetian border with Georgia, as reported by the European Union Monitoring Mission in the area earlier this month. The former Georgian province, which has a majority ethnic Russian population, seceded in 1990 and was recognized as an independent state by Moscow after a brief war in 2008.

Russia, for its part, has accused Georgia of fortifying the border.

The political situation in Georgia is of interest to the European Union because the only oil and natural gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea region that is not under Russian control, the South Caucasus Pipeline, traverses the country into Turkey and is supposed to link up with a European pipeline, enhancing the bloc’s energy independence of Russia. European countries currently receive some 25 percent of their gas from Russia. Renewed hostilities in the region could enable the Russians to take control of the pipeline and inhibit Europe’s room for maneuver.