GEORGIA: Candidates campaign ahead of presidential elections to be held in Georgia
GEORGIA: Candidates campaign ahead of presidential elections to be held in Georgia
- Title: GEORGIA: Candidates campaign ahead of presidential elections to be held in Georgia
- Date: 4th January 2008
- Summary: (BN12) DZEGVI, GEORGIA (DECEMBER 27, 2007) (REUTERS) NEWSPAPERS WITH PHOTO OF DAVID GAMKRELIDZE, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE AND LEADER OF NEW RIGHTS PARTY (NOT ALIGNED TO THE OPPOSITION COALITION) ON THE FRONT PAGE
- Embargoed: 19th January 2008 12:00
- Location: Georgia
- Country: Georgia
- Topics: Domestic Politics
- Reuters ID: LVAQ56ZJSNMQ909K7VM83CJBSUA
- Story Text: Georgia's snap presidential elections on Saturday (January 5), will become a test of democracy for Mikhail Saakashvili, and an attempt for many Georgians to draw attention to neglected social problems against the background of Western-praised reforms.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is likely to win a new term in a snap election on Saturday (January 5), but the vote will have to be squeaky clean if he is to regain his tattered reputation as a champion of democracy.
Saakashvili, who swept to power in a 2003 "Rose Revolution", dismayed his Western allies in November when he responded to massive opposition protests by sending in police with teargas and by closing down the biggest opposition television station.
He called the election months earlier than the scheduled date as part of a package of concessions to ease the stand-off with the opposition, which accuses him of ruling in an autocratic style and failing to ease poverty and unemployment.
His presidential campaign reflects the mood in the country and he promise to address social problems.
"Instead of blaming others (the opposition) we want to speak about our future, to speak about our better future, to speak about overcoming the poverty. This is our main slogan today," said Saakashvili at an election rally on December 25, addressing his supporters from the stage of the central music hall, holding hands with Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko who arrived to support his friend and ally.
There are no reliable polls in Georgia, but analysts predict Saakashvili, a 40-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer with a Dutch wife, will win about 60 percent of the vote.
Before riot police moved in, opposition parties mobilised up to 70,000 protesters in Tbilisi in November, but they damaged their election chances by failing to agree on a unity candidate.
Georgia, an ex-Soviet state of 4.5 million people in the Caucasus mountains, has strategic importance. A consortium led by British Petroluem will soon be pumping 1 million barrels of oil a day through a pipeline across Georgia, bypassing Russia.
The staunch U.S. ally has been the focus of a geopolitical tug-of-war with Russia, which accuses the West of encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence.
"Georgia cannot be rigged, we cannot be rigged. I will become a President of Georgia on January 5, I will become the president of all these journalists and will return you the right to rule the country," said Levan Gachechiladze, presidential candidate of the main opposition coalition, addressing about 6,000 opposition supporters gathered at an election rally last week in the centre of Tbilisi, which was held days before the elections.
Gachechiladze, a 43-year-old wine producer backed by the opposition coalition is convinced the elections will be rigged but he promises to fight for every single vote.
"We will defend every single vote cast for us, we will fight for each of it by constitutional ways, in case the elections are rigged,"
Gachechiladze told journalists.
Votes for the opposition are likely to be split between Gachechiladze and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Labour Party who split from the coalition.
Shalva Natelashvili"s left-wing Labour Party, which he founded in 1995, split from the opposition coalition. His party mainly campaigns on social promises but it proved unable to win enough votes to enter parliament in the 1999 and 2003 elections.
Though the vote is unlikely to change Georgia's pro-Western policies or its tense relations with Russia, and all the leading candidates back Saakashvili's drive for membership of NATO and the European Union, Natelashvili promised his supporters to ease the poverty by raising Russia's blockade, which affected Georgia's economy.
"I will open all the roads with Russia, will lift the blockade, will abolish the visa regime and our population will easily go to Russia to work, to trade and to bring in raw material for themselves and after that we will start seriously working on returning Tskhinvali (South Ossetia) and Abkhazia (two break-away autonomous republics)," Natelashvili told his supporters at the election rally in Dusheti, a village 40 kilometres northwest of Tbilisi.
David Gamkrelidze, 43, leader of the New Rights party, which is also not aligned to the opposition, is pro-business and right-wing. He has established Georgia's first insurance firm, which has dominated the local insurance market for years.
Gamkrelidze held his election rallies in most of the regions of Georgia and tried to meet people even in small villages encouraging the population to vote for him.
"They (the authorities) are intimidating people, threatening them with various things if they do not vote for them. But they actually cannot do anything, they cannot control this and if they offer you anything (for voting for them) take everything, all kinds of assistance, as it is purchased with our money and it belongs to you," Gamkrelidze told people in Dzegvi, 20 kilometres west of the capital.
Multi-millionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who was accused of plotting a coup after his Imedi television station became the main mouthpiece for the opposition protests in November, said this week he would pull out of the race, but on Thursday (January 3) morning he sent a written statement he had changed his mind again and would continue to fight for the presidency.
Police shut down Imedi, which is part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, but it was allowed back on air this month -- meeting a key demand of Western governments.
Patarkatsishvili has close links to Boris Berezovsky, a fugitive Russian tycoon who wielded huge political influence in Moscow in the 1990s and now lives in self-imposed exile in London.
Many Tbilisi residents expressed their satisfaction with Patarkatsishvili's decision to withdraw from the presidential bid. But there are people in Georgia who were disappointed by Patarkatsishvili's decision, as they hoped the multimillionaire would share his wealth with them.
Opposition challengers say they will stage mass protests after January 5 if there is evidence of ballot fraud.
Their ability to mobilise large numbers of protesters is likely to depend on whether observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deem the vote was fair.
The head of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Levan Tarkhnishvili, is convinced Georgia is reedy to hold free and fair elections.
"We can say that we are right now, we are ready to carry out the democratic, fair and transparent election. Although the timeframe was quite tough and short but we managed to fulfill all our obligations. In some cases we worked a little bit in force-majeure but I can now for surely state that we are ready, both technically and with the professional skills to carry out the elections," he told Reuters in an interview.
Most of the businessmen are not happy with the polarization of the society and political instability in the country. They are worried that foreign investments of recent years into Georgia's business may stop.
Political analyst Gia Nodia said he regards this election as the first really competitive elections in the history of Georgia but he expects Saakashvili to win.
"Still I expect to be won by Saakashvili and to reflect real mood of the country at the moment. But, of course, because of the very deep mistrust, especially of the opposition and the society which supports the opposition, there is a big problem whether opposition, if they loose, they will accept this result of the elections and how will hey react," said Nodia. .
Independent analyst and polls give different assessments of the outcome of elections.
Though Saakashvili is on course to win, voters are expected to register their unhappiness with his rule.
U.S. President George W. Bush described Georgia as a "beacon of democracy" and liberal economic reforms have helped deliver gross domestic product growth of between 9 and 12 percent in each of the past four years. Foreign investment has surged.
But many Georgians complain that while the West praises the reforms, they have been left behind: inflation eats into incomes, utilities bills have risen and unemployment is high.
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