Voters Doubt Fairness of Georgian Election
By David Holley
TBILISI, Georgia — Allegations of widespread irregularities marred parliamentary elections here Sunday that U.S. and European leaders view as a key test of this former Soviet republic’s democratic development.
Many Georgians interviewed outside polling stations complained that voting lists were inaccurate, depriving some citizens of their right to cast ballots and perhaps providing opportunities for fraud.
“All the people who are dead in my apartment building are on the list — I knew four,” said Jemal Burchuladze, 26, a computer specialist who voted for the opposition Labor Party. “I also saw seven people who are not on the list but should be.”
Many observers regard the balloting as a referendum on the 11-year rule of President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, 75, a former Soviet foreign minister. Shevardnadze won esteem in the West for helping end the Cold War, but critics now accuse him of running a corrupt and ineffective government.
After casting his ballot, Shevardnadze told reporters the voting would be “very fair.” The Central Election Commission released preliminary results early today that showed the pro-Shevardnadze “For a New Georgia” bloc with 26%, while four main opposition parties had a combined 58%.
Analysts and opinion polls have generally predicted that the opposition would take control of parliament unless there was massive fraud, and some opposition leaders have vowed that there would be street protests if authorities declared the pro-government bloc the winner.
Shevardnadze is required by law to step down in 2005, when his second term ends. The vote was in effect the first step in the race to succeed him, as it will show the relative strength of opposition and pro-government contenders and will determine how much power they will have in parliament.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles described the voting as “watershed elections for the development of Georgian democracy, in addition to their intrinsic importance, because this is not a rubber-stamp parliament.”
Some analysts say the results may also influence whether Georgia moves to build closer ties with the West or steps back toward Moscow’s orbit. While Shevardnadze has followed a strongly pro-Western foreign policy, Russia has recently taken a more active role in Georgia’s economy, and some politicians in the presidential camp favor deepening those ties.
If foreign observers judge that the election was fundamentally flawed, that could lead to a reduction in foreign aid to Georgia.
U.S. assistance has averaged more than $100 million a year for the last decade, partly because Georgia is seen as strategically important in providing a route for the export of Caspian Sea oil. A $3-billion pipeline from Azerbaijan across Georgia to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is under construction.
About 500 foreign monitors are in the country, most from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is to announce its verdict on the conduct of the elections later today. The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, Washington-based organizations that support democratic development around the world, have also sent missions.
Georgian authorities “fouled up the list of registered voters” and failed to diligently train the local election commissions, said George Folsom, president of the International Republican Institute. “This poor performance has generated a lot of confusion and anxiety among the voters… The Georgia glass of democracy remains only half full.”
Another foreign observer, who spoke on condition he not be identified because his organization wasn’t ready to make an official statement, said there appeared to be “targeted disorganization” with voter lists. This “would seem to play into the hands of the executive authorities to do better in the elections than they might otherwise do,” he said.
Mikheil Saakashvili, head of the National Movement, one of the main opposition parties, alleged that the balloting was marred by “mass fraud.” Saakashvili, a potential presidential candidate in 2005, charged that groups of police were taken to various precincts to vote multiple times.
“People should not be frightened,” he added. “If the government does everything to falsify the election, they should expect that people will react. I don’t know whether with all this falsification — and with the opposition having overwhelming support of the people — whether the government will be successful enough to stop the popular will. I think they will fail miserably.”
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