dimanche 1 juin 2008

Will the Snap Presidential Election in Georgia Give a Chance to the Opposition?

Article published in caucaz.com, 16/12/2007 Issue
By Nicolas LANDRU in Leipzig

© Nicolas Landru, Poster of the National Movement in Tbilisi

On 8 November, one day after opposition rally protesters got roughly dispersed by anti-riot forces, and a few hours after he proclaimed state of emergency, Georgia’s President surprised everyone with announcing rescheduled presidential election on 5 January 2008. Thus, Mikhail Saakashvili did the complete opposite from what the opposition was asking for: to hold snap parliamentary elections. The President seems to have developed an original strategy in order to face Georgia’s month-long political crisis and to gain back his popularity, which was appreciably damaged by the events of November.

With carrying out demonstrations in front of Georgian parliament, the opposition demanded, among other requests, to hold early parliamentary elections in spring. According to the constitution, the parliamentary elections were planned several months before the presidential elections. However, in December 2006, National Movement MPs voted for amendments which fixed the presidential election earlier and the parliamentary elections later, both supposed to take place between October and December 2008.

Electoral Strategies

The government has justified this decision by underlining the destabilizing potential of holding Georgian elections simultaneously with Russian presidential ones, which are planed for March 2008. In his October speech to the nation, Saakashvili also insisted on the fact that the international community would possibly recognize Kosovo’s independent status in March, which could lead to Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and thus threaten Georgia’s stability at an important moment.

Despite those arguments concerning state safety, opposition parties and analysts observe that this move could enable the President to secure the majority in the parliament in case he is re-elected. With parliamentary elections held some 6 months before the end of his term, Saakashvili risks the opposition gaining control in the Parliament by exploiting people’s discontent, which is usual for final phases of presidential terms. Nevertheless, counting on his personal charisma and on the absence of opposition figures who could seriously challenge him, Saakashvili has a better chance to win the presidential election individually. The December 2006 decision could then aim, in the first place, to provide the President with a second term, and secondly, to ride this wave by settling the National Movement in Parliament.

Subsequently, it was in the interest of opposition parties federating under the label « National Council of a United Movement » to demand parliamentary elections on their initial date, while protesting against the hasty amendments to the electoral code. A conglomerate of diverse movements, the opposition bloc finds its coherence in protesting against the current government, which increases their chances to win parliamentary elections. However, lacking an emerging charismatic leader, the opposition faces serious difficulties to unite its antagonistic tendencies in a presidential campaign: the bloc connects parties from the far-left to the far-right, including liberals, centrists and diverse personalities).

Seeming to gain legitimacy as a result of the demonstrations that lasted in Tbilisi streets until 7 November, the opposition assigned to Saakashvili an image of an autocrat deaf to people’s claims and disrespectful of democratic rules. Additionally, while choosing to disperse the crowd with force on the same day, the authorities gave legitimacy to this representation. By closing opposition media, sending police forces which used violence, declaring a state of emergency and defying international critics, the authorities’ successive actions seemed to confirm this antidemocratic image. Such representations were massively broadcasted by Imedi TV, the media outlet with the largest audience in the country, until it was closed by police forces on November 7.

The Authorities’ Calculation

One day after this turmoil, governmental actions already tended to deny the accusations. The authorities seemed to attempt to counter those attacks by turning them back on their authors. First of all, government instantly justified police operation against demonstrators as due to state safety. The government advanced a theory according to which radical elements of the opposition, supported by business tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili and some “foreign forces”, referring to Russia, were preparing a coup. Peter Semnby, EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, did not want to discuss this thesis, while explaining that he could not do it as far as there is no evidence.

Nevertheless, the government gained obvious advantages by proclaiming a state of emergency, since it enabled the authorities to accuse the opposition of collaborating with the Russian « enemy ». According to this scenario, the sake of the state enables the dissolution of the opposition’s voice through the imposition of a state of emergency, while Saakashvili assumes that he has been deciding upon power struggles to save the homeland. “Yesterday, we did not defend the government, but Georgian statehood,” he declared on 8 November. The opposition reportedly complained on 13 November that Saakashvili hijacked the state of emergency in order to disadvantage his challengers during the electoral campaign.

According to this interpretation, the intervention of a high-tech anti-riot police can be seen as an attempt to ascribe to rather peaceful protesters the role of rioters which endanger the State . Furthermore, the government demonstrated its strength while experimenting with new technologies. Anti-riot police were wearing the last model of futuristic-looking gas masks. They also used ultra-sound weapons for one of the first times in the world. These machines produce noises which confuse the listener for several minutes. Whereas disarmed protesters should not necessarily justify such equipment, the authorities had the opportunity to demonstrate to domestic as well as to external observers how Georgian armed forces have developed drastically since the Rose Revolution. Thus they were able to prove that Saakashvili’s term brought modernisation and strength to the country.

Above all, while subsequently proposing to hold snap presidential polls, Saakashvili told the opposition on 8 November, “Dear people, did you demand early elections? You have received even earlier ones. Did you knock on the door of Democracy? It is open, because as the President of this country, I am a guarantor that this door will never be closed.” As it immediately softened the brutal effects of the state of emergency, Saakashvili’s coup de theatre re-established him as a clement democrat and enabled him, in front of everyone, to start his electoral campaign.

Trapping the opposition

However, Saakashvili did not agree to demonstrators’ claims in announcing snap presidential elections. On the contrary, he did the opposite from the opposition’s strategy, which banked on the parliamentary elections being held before the presidential ones. By shaking things up and shortening his mandate, the President created a confusion by giving a chance to everyone, at the same time countering the tactic of the opposition. Since the protesters were mainly arguing that the President was keeping all the power, they did not have any choice other than to welcome his decision.

Eventually, holding such early elections could contribute to handicapping Saakashvili’s opposition. He started his campaign as early as he planned the rescheduled elections. He has the support of a favourable media, Georgian Public Broadcasting, the only public TV channel allowed to broadcast news during the state of emergency. Thus, his speaking time is amplified. Both opposition TV channels are forbidden until 22 November, when the state of emergency will expire. Furthermore, owners of Imedi, the main media platform of the opposition, have declared that material damages will prevent it from broadcasting for at least two or three months.

Saakashvili is also backed by the National Movement, a party which is united and trained and which has a precise political agenda. The National Movement can also claim to be the author of Georgia’s quick development since Rose Revolution and is at any time ready to launch a mass communication campaign. By contrast, until now, the opposition was only united as far as they protested against the government about electoral and institutional questions. However, their alliance has to this day neither a common program nor an agenda.

Could the opposition turn president?

As much as the different tendencies from the opposition bloc are united against the National Movement, they actually don’t have any common ideological basis which could enable them to construct a common vision. Everything should separate neo-zviadists from republicans, from post-communists, from Irakli Okruashvili’s militarists and from business tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, who financed protest actions and put his TV channel Imedi at the opposition’s disposal. On 10 November, Patarkatsishvili was already saying that he will run for presidency, having no other slogan than “Georgia without Saakashvili is Georgia without terror.” He could perhaps ride the wave of indignation against the authorities. Nevertheless, he has thus far not proposed any alternative agenda to the one of the National Movement.

Moreover, the opposition already lost a part of its unity. The 10 federated parties do not support Patarkatsishvili’s candidature. The New Right party proposed as candidate Davit Gemkrelidze, whom the Industrialist Party also supports. Gia Maisashvili will run for the Party of Future and the Labour Party will also have its own candidate. The remaining parties decided to let a common candidate run, the MP without a party Levan Gachechiladze who is almost unknown to the general public. Obviously, the time remaining before the elections is extremely short for bringing this new candidate to the foreground, especially given that the opposition will have almost no means of communication until the state of emergency is lifted, and won’t have much more possibility afterwards.

If the bloc manages to maintain its unity around Gachechiladze until the 5 January, its candidate will have to hold a hasty campaign, his platform still being developed. The only ambition Gachechiladze has declared is actually an anti-program, which consists in abolishing the presidency after his election. He proposed to retire and to proclaim a parliamentary regime if he gets elected, in accordance with what has been the main demand of the opposition in the last weeks.

Since he announced the earlier presidential polls, Mikhail Saakashvili has played the card of reconciliation, forgiving to those he called traitors, stopping judicial proceedings against members of the opposition and claiming his democratic behaviour would have been in itself proved by the fact he proposed the snap presidential elections. In other words, the President starts the campaign with huge advantages.

Looking back, the 7 November demonstration of strength will perhaps have reached a secondary goal, by imposing in the eyes of Georgian people the idea that Saakashvili’s Georgia is not the same as the one from before. It will have given the impression that this Georgia knows how to defend itself in case of emergency, has among the most modern police forces which are trained by Western powers, that this Georgia is a winner. In those conditions, the opposition may encounter difficulties getting through to the masses, even if one of its candidates manages to politically hijack people’s traumatism caused by that same 7 November.

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