Georgian President faces election challenge

Friday, January 4, 2008

Georgia will hold a snap presidential election on Saturday in which six candidates are challenging incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili, who is accused of rigging the process in his favor.

The Georgian presidential election is being held less than two months after President Mikhail Saakashvili set the date in response to mass demonstrations against his government in early November. Riot police used force to break up the protests, and Mr. Saakashvili declared a state of emergency, which included the closing of independent media.

Candidate David Gamkrelidze, leader of the conservative New Rights Party, says lack of time prevented him from extensive campaigning, particularly in Georgia's mountainous rural areas.

"And, of course, these 45 days [were] not enough when you have such shortage of money," he said. "It was quite difficult to bring all your messages, all ideas, all program priorities to voters."

Gamkrelidze also accuses Mr. Saakashvili of using administrative resources of the presidency to run his campaign. According to Gamkrelidze, these include money from the state budget, and the political assistance of governors, police and prosecutors.

Another candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, a former Saakashvili ally and leader of the United Opposition, says presidential challengers were also denied equal media access.

"We cannot use media, because media is very subjective," he said. "We cannot use advertising and promotion in Tbilisi and all of Georgia, because they are all closed for us - like billboards, and these kinds of things in [under]passes and trolley busses."

Authorities have denied allegations of rigging and say Saturday's elections will be fair.

For his part, Mr. Saakashvili has campaigned on a slogan of a "Georgia without Poverty," promising - among other things - to double pensions in October. He has faced criticism for a slow pace of reforms and accusations of increasingly authoritarian policies. In response, he has called for voter trust.

Another candidate, exiled Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, is promising various social benefits to be paid for 18 months out of his own pocket if he is elected. The benefits would include about US$35 per month to all unemployed persons, as well as 100 kilowatts of electricity and 100 cubic meters of gas each month to needy families. In addition, Patarkatsishvili says, he will purchase Georgia's entire grape and citrus harvest to help farmers hurt by a Russian embargo on Georgian goods.

Public opinion polls indicate a fractured opposition could give the weakened Saakashvili a victory in Saturday's election, but he could lose in a second round of balloting two weeks later, if he fails to cross the mandatory 50 percent threshold.

Several opposition leaders say there will be protests if the election results are rigged. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has monitored the Georgian campaign and has observers throughout Georgia for the election.


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