Elections to Gauge Trust In Georgias Democracy

Gigi Ugulava is a busy boy. The ruling party’s candidate for mayor of Tbilisi in local elections in Georgia at the end of the month has been on the road, hustling for votes in a variety of inventive ways. He’s been chopping meat at a sausage factory, baking bread with local bakers, filling tanks at a gas station and cleaning windows at a cinema.

His campaign strategy seems to suggest that while opposition candidates bicker and complain, he is finding out what real people want and working hard to give it to them.

At the same time, roads are being resurfaced and potholes are being filled all across Tbilisi. A new traffic bypass is being built, and a modern, new pedestrian river bridge has opened. This may all be coincidence, but it appears to be timed to burnish Ugulava’s can-do image.

Opposition politicians have claimed that the local elections constitute a referendum on President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, almost two years after the war with Russia. They want to use the polls as a platform to oust what they describe as a repressive regime.

But public opinion surveys suggest that they may be disappointed. In fact, so far, these have been the calmest, most predictable elections in Georgia in years. Saakashvili’s party looks set to perform well, and his ally, Ugulava, is almost certain to win the Tbilisi mayoral seat. Equally predictable will be the opposition protests that will inevitably follow the polls, and it’s just as likely that they will end in failure, as in previous years.

The campaign itself has been rather tepid, apart from a flare-up involving one opposition candidate, Zviad Dzidziguri, who got into a brawl with ruling party activists who were putting up campaign posters on the walls of his house. Dzidziguri ended the tussle by firing off a couple of shots from his pistol. His critics have suggested that this wasn’t exactly statesmanlike behavior.

In the run-up to the vote, further clashes between government loyalists and opposition radicals probably can’t be ruled out.

Some Western diplomats have suggested that after fiercely contested presidential and parliamentary elections two years ago, what matters now is not the results but whether these polls will build more trust in the democratic process. But with less than a week to go, that still remains to be seen.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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