Georgia's presidential election to test Saakashvili's commitment to democracy

Mikhail Saakashvili became a symbol of democratic reform in the former Soviet Union in 2003, after the brash young politician led large-scale street protests that ousted a graying veteran of the Communist era from power.
Now, the hero of Georgia's Rose Revolution faces a test of his own commitment to democracy in the Jan. 5 presidential election, in which he is accused of silencing critics and restricting independent media.
Despite sinking approval ratings, the U.S.-educated incumbent stands a good chance of winning a second term, benefiting from the failure of the opposition to unite around a single candidate.
But Saakashvili's credentials as a reformer have been weakened by charges his supporters are intimidating the opposition, pressuring people to vote for the president and leaning on businesses to help fund his campaign.
There is concern that Georgia could follow other former Soviet republics, including Russia, in abandoning or weakening democratic reforms.
"Georgia's Western allies are viewing the election as a test for Saakashvili's commitment to democracy," said Ana Jelenkovic, a Georgia analyst at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based firm that provides advice on geopolitical risks.
"The U.S., in particular, is in a position in which it cannot overlook massive electoral fraud should it occur."
Opposition leaders are already vowing to take to the streets if they judge the vote unfair.
Washington and Western Europe have a pragmatic as well as philosophical stake in Georgia: A major pipeline carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey runs through the country and its proximity to Iran makes the country of strategic interest.
Saakashvili, 40, was once an overwhelmingly popular figure, winning the January 2004 election with more than 96 percent of the vote. Today, polls show him with roughly 20 percent support when voters are asked to choose among the seven candidates.
Georgians praise the youthful and energetic president _ called here by his nickname Misha _ for seeking to integrate Georgia into the European Union and NATO. He's also admired for his crusade to break free of Moscow, which has long dominated its small southern neighbor.
But Saakashvili's popularity has been dented by persistent corruption and widespread poverty; the average monthly salary in Georgia is a meager $225 (euro157).
Saakashvili has also failed to make progress in bringing two separatist provinces back under the central government's control and returning tens of thousands of refugees to their homes.
Many who supported Saakashvili in street demonstrations four years ago felt betrayed when police used tear gas, rubber bullets and truncheons to break up protests in the heart of Tbilisi in November.
The images shocked the world and brought condemnation from Western capitals. Saakashvili called the early vote to defuse the crisis.
The Georgian government also yanked a leading independent television channel, Imedi, off the air for more than a month, denying the opposition a key platform in the midst of the brief election campaign.
Saakashvili dominates television coverage of the election, and government ministers routinely appear at his campaign events.
He has focused on the economy, adopting the slogan "Georgia without poverty." He has raised pensions from $24 (euro16) a month to $35 (euro24) a month in recent weeks, promising to bring them up to $100 next year. He has greatly increased social spending and eased unpopular restrictions on retail traders at outdoor markets.
His message steals much of the thunder from the opposition, whose demands for improved living conditions had brought the thousands of protesters out onto the street last month.
The divided opposition, meanwhile, has not come up with a coherent program of its own.
Saakashvili's chief rivals are Levan Gachechiladze, a burly 43-year-old winemaking businessman and lawmaker; and Badri Patarkatsishvili, a 52-year-old billionaire who has been accused of plotting to overthrow the government. He has campaigned from outside the country fearing arrest.
The opposition has other reasons to be concerned.
Many government-paid workers, including doctors and teachers, say their bosses have told them they could lose their jobs if they don't vote for Saakashvili. Marina Gelashvili, a 45-year-old language teacher in Tbilisi, said the principal told the faculty that they should "give their vote to the person who promised to raise your salaries" _ a reference to Saakashvili _ or look for another job.
Some business owners say members of the president's party have pressured them to fund Saakashvili's campaign.
Saakashvili's critics also claim the government has added hundreds of thousands of "dead souls" _ deceased voters and fictitious names _ to voter lists to inflate the president's vote count.
They point out that the number of eligible voters has jumped to 3.3 million people _ a million more than four years ago. Election officials deny the allegation, saying voting lists were incomplete last time around.
The election observation mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the campaign has been soured by allegations Saakashvili has used budgetary funds, unequal campaign conditions, intimidation and vote buying. The OSCE mission said it "has received information and firsthand accounts, which indicate some of these claims are credible."
One Gachechiladze activist, Temiri Aprasidze, said he and a colleague were grabbed and beaten in broad daylight in a town outside the capital by a group of men, in full view of police on patrol.
"For the authorities, nothing is off limits _ if promises don't help, then they use threats," said Ivlian Khaindrava, a leader of the opposition Republican Party.

Updated : 2021-03-03 10:59 GMT+08:00