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Georgia elections test Saakashvili party's support

Georgia elections test Saakashvili party's support

A fractured opposition faces President Mikhail Saakashvili's powerful governing party in nationwide local elections that will be an informal referendum on the controversial president's rule _ the first since the country's August 2008 war with Russia.
The elections Sunday will be for local councils and for mayor of the country's capital, Tbilisi. But they will also give voters a chance to pass judgment on the five-day war in which Russian forces drove deep into Georgia and two separatist regions broke the last hold the Georgian government had over them.
The war was a national trauma. Although Georgians almost universally denounced Russia for brutality and imperial ambitions, many also blamed Saakashvili, saying he touched off the war by ordering an unjustified barrage of the capital of one of the Russian-backed separatist regions.
Following the war, the president's position seemed tenuous. Weeks of protests aimed at forcing him to resign broke out last spring, but the demonstrations fizzled after a couple of months. The opposition forces have not been able to regroup since, and they appear to have little chance of success in the local ballots.
The most closely watched race is for Tbilisi mayor, the first time it will be a directly elected post. It is one of the most prominent political positions in the country and the winner will likely be seen as being in a strong position to succeed Saakashvili when his second term expires in 2013.
The incumbent mayor, Saakashvili ally Gigi Ugulava, has a lead of at least 40 percentage points over the nearest of his eight challengers, according to polls.
Ugulava's popularity stems partly from the comparative prosperity that has visited Tbilisi during his five years in office, with shiny construction projects rising and cute cafes dotting once-shabby neighborhoods. He also appears to be benefiting from biased media coverage and opposition disunity.
The country's two most popular private TV channels have "demonstrated their support for the ruling party and its Tbilisi mayoral candidate," the election observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a report this month. "Both channels also devoted extensive and favorable coverage to the activities of authorities outside the campaign context."
The report also noted some questionable practices by Tbilisi authorities, such as giving out discounted cinema tickets marked with a prominent "5," the number on the ballot for the United National Movement party of Saakashvili and Ugulava.
"The opposition doesn't have unity or resources," said political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze. "This collapse is connected with the (protests) of April 2009, when they gambled that Saakashvili would resign. This didn't happen and the voters were disillusioned,"
"The opposition's chances, realistically, aren't great," said another analyst, Georgi Khukhashvili. "In the regions, they're hopelessly losing the local elections."
Ugulava's nearest challenger , according to recent polls, is Irakli Alasania, Saakashvili's former ambassador to the United Nations and now an opposition leader. Polls show that fewer than 10 percent of voters support her.
All the mayoral candidates say unemployment and economic development are their main issues.
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Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to his report.


Updated : 2021-06-18 20:24 GMT+08:00