Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Georgian government, opposition prepare for early elections

This was originally published in November 17, 2007 Armenian Reporter.
by Emil Sanamyan

WASHINGTON – Georgian opposition parties that led antigovernment protests earlier this month will jointly nominate nonpartisan Levan Gachechiladze to challenge President Mikhail Saakashvili in early elections expected next January, Georgian and other news agencies reported on November 12.

The move came as many local citizens and Mr. Saakashvili’s past supporters in the West expressed “shock” over his heavy-handed crackdown against opposition protests and private media on November 7.

Mr. Saakashvili, running without serious opposition, won more than 90 percent of the vote in Georgia’s 2004 elections, but many of those who backed him then appear to have changed their minds.

“We have to chose from a lesser of two evils,” said Georgi Zhvania, brother of late prime Minister and Saakashvili ally Zurab Zhvania. “At this point this means that Saakashvili must leave.”

Still most Georgian and outside analysts believe that Mr. Saakashvili is likely to prevail if the poll is held on January 5 as proposed. The Economist wrote on November 15, “The election looks like a cynical stunt to capitalize on the opposition’s divisions and unpreparedness, in conditions in which the contest can hardly be free or fair.”

While the government lifted the state of emergency on November 16, allowing private news media to broadcast, the Tbilisi city court suspended the license of the most critical channel, Imedi TV, owned by the U.S.-based News Corporation of Rupert Murdoch. Citing damage caused to the station by security forces, a News Corp. executive had suggested earlier that it would take three months to come back on air.

The opposition nominee pledged that if elected he would reform the constitution to devolve the president’s powers to a prime minister to be picked by the parliament. “The main goal for me will be to finish with the presidential institution in Georgia,” Mr. Gachechiladze was quoted as saying by RFE/RL.

The 43-year-old owner of the Georgian Wine & Spirits, one of the largest local companies, and a member of parliament, Mr. Gachechiladze also promised to appoint former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili as prime minister.

It is so far unclear whether the opposition’s candidate would receivethe backing of billionaire businessperson Badri Patarkatsishvili who is now wanted by both the Russian and Georgian governments and is abroad. He expressed interest in running for president himself before the nine parties agree to Mr. Gachechiladze’s candidacy.

Olesya Vartanyan contributed to this story from Tbilisi.

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