Tbilisi City Council Controversy Deals Blow to Opposition
13 November 2002
TBILISI, 13 November (Eurasianet)--Controversy in the Tbilisi City Council has dealt a blow to the political opposition's hopes of challenging President Eduard Shevardnadze's authority.
Allegations of improper conduct have tarnished the image of new Tbilisi City Council chair Mikhael Saakashvili, one of the most prominent opposition figures in Georgia.
The controversy surrounding Saakashvili's selection as council chairman has also opened up a rift among Shevardnadze's critics. Saakashvili declared himself the winner of the City Council election on 4 November. However, legal experts contend that the vote was marked by several irregularities. Charges and countercharges surrounding the election controversy even prompted a fistfight on the floor of the Georgian parliament on 5 November.
To become speaker of the 49-seat city council, Saakashvili, who leads the National Movement-Democratic Front, needed a simple majority of 25 votes. The only other candidate with a shot at the position was Levan Gachechiladze of the New Rights Party.
Saakashvili's National Movement controlled 13 council seats, and he also had the support of nine of the Labor Party's 11 council seats. (Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili refused to attend the council's meeting, and one Labor deputy had recently died). Thus, to ensure victory, Saakashvili needed the support of the United Democrats, a party headed by former Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania.
In addition, since Labor members did not guarantee that they woud vote for Saakashvili, he sought to reduce his chances of failure and joined by Labor and United Democrats, excluded all other parties represented in the city council from the mandate commission.
That body, in turn, barred three deputies who had split with the Labor Party in August, two months after the local elections, from voting in the election. Giga Bokeria, a representative of the Liberty Institute [a public interest organization in Tbilisi], characterized the mandate commission's action as a "violation of [the three excluded deputies'] civil rights."
Fresh controversy developed when election time approached. Members of the three parties holding seats in the council refrained from casting ballots. Also, three city council members from Zhvania's United Democrats were simultaneously, members of the Georgian parliament, in apparent violation of Georgian legislation. "The law on membership in parliament clearly prohibits membership in a second elected body by a parliamentarian," one of Georgia's leading lawyers, David Usupashvili, explained. Two of the three United Democratic politicians in question ended up voting for Saakashvili.
In recent weeks, Saakashvili's and Zhvania's parties have explored closer ties with the New Rights Party in an effort to establish a united opposition against Shevardnadze in parliament.
Saakashvili's election and the United Democrats' vote for him seriously damaged prospects for closer ties with the New Rights Party. "Democrats and Nationalists chose to stand above the law, and we cannot stand with people for whom the rule of law is not paramount," New Rights Party deputy leader Pikria Chikhradze said.
Despite Chikhradze's statement, Zhvania expressed hope in a recent television interview that discussions would continue among the opposition parties on forging a cohesive front to defeat Shevardnadze's Citizens Union in the 2003 parliamentary elections.
In the meantime, it remains unclear if securing the position of Tbilisi City Council chair will help or hurt Saakashvili's political fortunes. Some local political analysts suspect that the post might undermine Saakashvili's presidential ambitions. The fractious nature of the city council ensures that Saakashvili will have difficulty using his new position to establish a record of accomplishment.
"Given the council's very limited powers, along with the controversial, even illegitimate, nature of balloting ... the notion that the new chamber might become the center of anti-Shevardnadze opposition is unlikely, even though the president's party is not represented in the council," former Georgian parliamentarian Zviad Bokuchava said.
In addition, analysts expect Saakashvili will be hard pressed to fulfill campaign promises, including the expansion of social services. Observers note that the council lacks the ability to generate revenue to meet the majority of Tbilisi's social needs.
There are additional questions about the strength of Saakashvili's power base within the council. In an interview with EurasiaNet in July, Natelashvili said the Labor Party was supporting Saakashvili's candidacy precisely inorder to discredit the former justice minister-- placing him in a position of authority that lacked real power. Some analysts believe the Labor Party may start criticizing Saakashvili as the parliamentary elections approach in an attempt to lure back voters lost to the National Movement over the past year.
Shevardnadze's supporters say privately that Saakashvili's election as Tbilisi City Council chair actually benefits the president and his Citizens Union. The radical tactics employed by Saakashvili's National Movement--including a 1 November incident in which party supporters stormed into the Central Election Commission offices to protest a delay in the release of recount results--undermine its credibility as a governing force, Shevardnadze supporters contend.
The continued reliance of the National Movement on such tactics could assist Shevardnadze in making a case, both to the Georgian population and to Western governments, that the opposition is not capable of governing the country.