The May 30 vote will be the first time that Tbilisi residents vote directly for their mayor, who until now has been an appointee of the City Council. Figuring prominently in public discussion about the vote is a series of costly social-services programs being implemented by incumbent Mayor Gigi Ugulava, one of Georgia's key power brokers.
Tbilisi's budget for social welfare programs tripled to 74.5 million lari (roughly $43 million) in 2010. The funds are financing nearly a dozen new or expanded programs, covering everything from medicine vouchers for the elderly to free English-language and computer classes. A major road construction initiative is also underway to ease Tbilisi's sprawling traffic jams - a frequent complaint for city residents - and an ambitious jobs-creation program is designed to help 2,000 families with multiple children.
Critics of the mayor contend the programs are being improperly shaped to boost his re-election chances. Ugulava, meanwhile, maintains that he is not even thinking about the race and insists his administration is merely striving to respond to constituents' needs.
The mayoral election stands to play a critical role in President Mikheil Saakashvili's campaign to show Georgian voters, as well as the international community, that the national government retains an ardent commitment to democratization, even though it has faced vocal opposition at home for its alleged lack of tolerance for dissent, and played a role in starting Georgia's disastrous five-day war with Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
His attention, he claims, lies elsewhere -- on fighting unemployment and improving living conditions. "I don't think about things like [candidate] registration or the election because until the new mayor and the new City Council will be elected, I have to do my job," Ugulava stressed in a recent interview with EurasiaNet.
Opposition parties argue that the programs are a thinly disguised attempt to buy votes. Ugulava maintains that city government is functioning as it should. "This is the advantage -- and disadvantage -- of being the existing mayor," he said. "I know there will be allegations [of abuse of administrative resources] ? But I can't stop. ? I have to fulfill my job [requirements]."
Manana Nachkebia, a member of parliament from the opposition New Rights Party, contends that the mayor is using the city government coffers to finance an unofficial election campaign by running programs that "facilitate photos with the mayor."
Television news reports on government-friendly stations regularly feature the mayor visiting vulnerable families to promote the programs, or talking about his "large family" employment scheme.
"We believe that they [leaders of the governing United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia] are breaking the law during the pre-election period," Nachkebia said.
Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) Georgia shares the concern about the city running such programs in an election year, but notes that the initiatives do not violate election law.
The programs were included in the 2010 budget and many started before President Saakashvili announced the mayoral election date, stated TI Georgia Executive Director Tamuna Karosanidze. "[He] is the mayor, so right now it is very hard to blame him for using the administrative resources because he is not saying 'vote for me,'" Karosanidze said.
Ugulava stated that a 100,000-lari (about $57,816) door-to-door survey showed the city government what issues matter most to Tbilisi's residents, and that the programs were tailored accordingly.
Unemployment ranks as "the main problem," he said. To hone residents' job skills, particular emphasis has been placed on free computer and English-language classes. Some 20,000 residents have signed up for the classes, prompting the city to increase the program budget by half to 1.5 million lari ($867,252) to expand the program, Ugulava said.
Allegations of administrative resource abuse are nothing new for the Georgian government. Transparency International Georgia charges that the authorities have misused state resources, including budgetary resources, media resources and influence on state employees, in every election since 2003. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election monitors reported similar irregularities during the 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
With the mayoral election looming, Transparency International plans to watch the city government's welfare programs closely to monitor how they are implemented, Karosanidze said. City Hall brochures appear to be blurring lines, she added. "[A person] couldn't tell the difference between that brochure and a campaign brochure," Karosanidze said.
Mayor Ugulava argues that the new programs were put into the city budget in December 2009, two months before the election date was set, and have nothing to do with the vote. "It is something that happened in November, December," Ugulava said. "It does not have anything to do with elections at the end of May."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.