Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has triumphed in the June 20 election for Ajaria's local parliament, but one Saakashvili supporter has warned that irregularities in the poll could lead to his party breaking with the president's ruling National Movement bloc.
According to preliminary official figures, the Mikheil Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria bloc won 75 percent of the 125,000 votes cast in the ballot, Ajarian Supreme Election Commission (SEC) Chairman Irakly Pagava told reporters in Batumi on Monday, Interfax reported.
The Republican Party, a member of Saakashvili's National Movement bloc, received some 9 percent of the vote. None of the other 8 parties running in the elections met the 7 percent requirement for a seat in Ajaria's 30-member parliament, the Supreme Council.
The Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria party also secured seats in all 12 of Ajaria's single-mandate constituencies. The remaining 18 seats are allotted according to a proportional party list.
In a June 22 statement, Georgi Arveladze, the general-secretary of Saakashvili's National Movement bloc, told reporters that Victorious Ajaria had secured all but two of the 30 parliament seats. The remaining two seats will be held by Republican Party deputies.
"The Ajarian people's support of the president's team at the elections requires that we make every possible effort to fulfill the promises we have made," Interfax quoted Arveladze as saying.
With only the Republicans and Victorious Ajaria holding seats in the Supreme Council, the election could strongly reinforce the central government's control over the Black Sea region. The parliament will elect Ajaria's new leader as well as vote whether to accept President Saakashvili's envoy to the region.
The elections had been hailed as the first democratic ballot in the Black Sea region in more than a decade and as a test of Ajaria's support for the Saakashvili government since last month's resignation of strongman leader Aslan Abashidze. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive].
But already, questions are being raised as to the vote's accuracy.
The Fair Elections Commission, a non-governmental organization that performed an independent vote count at 250 of Ajaria's 303 polling stations, stated that Saakashvili-Victorious Ajaria won only 68.5 percent of the vote, while the Republican Party gained 13.6 percent.
Davit Berdzenishvili, leader of the Republican Party and a nominal ally of Mikheil Saakashvili, charged that "the results of the elections to the [Supreme] Council Chamber . . . do not reflect the real picture," the News-Georgia agency reported. Berdzenishvili's party ran as Victorious Ajaria's primary contender in the elections, campaigning on a platform of greater autonomy for the region.
"As the leader of the Republican Party, I will soon raise the question with our party's leadership about withdrawing from the National Movement bloc," Berdzenishvili added. In remarks reported on the Civil Georgia site, the Republican leader also charged that Victorious Ajaria had "used almost the same methods during the voting, which were used by [former Ajarian leader] Aslan Abashidze's Revival Union."
Elections under Abashidze were regularly marred by violence and intimidation of ruling party opponents as well as election fraud.
No incidences have been reported for the June 20 ballot, and reports of violence appear to have been limited to a fist-fight between members of the Victorious Ajaria and the Republican Parties in Akhalsheni village, but the Republican Party is not alone in contesting the poll's results.
Berdzenishvili's criticism was echoed by opposition Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili who told reporters Monday that the elections had been "totally falsified by the incumbent authorities," Interfax reported.
Natelashvili charged that his party had not been allowed to perform a vote count independent of the Ajarian election commission, a standard election procedure. "The outcome was announced according to the please-the-authorities principle rather than by counting the real number of votes." According to the Fair Elections Commission tally, Labor candidates received a mere 1.22 percent of the votes cast.
Various reports have circulated about the election's conduct; the most common charges that voters in several villages were allowed to cast ballots without proper identification. The Republican Party leader also raised concerns about the decision to cancel elections in the village of Tsqavroka after it was found that there were not adequate supplies of the official stamps used to validate ballots. In another village, Sameba, a Republican Party stronghold, an incorrect ballot number was assigned to the Republican Party candidate, Berdzenishvili said.
While SEC Chairman Paglava acknowledged that violations had been detected at several polling stations, he stated that the occurrences would not lead to the cancellation of voting results. By law, officials have 18 days to release final results for the elections. The Central Election Commission in Tbilisi declared on June 20 that the vote's 40 percent turnout rate had met the 30 percent threshold required to be declared valid.
Berdzenishvili has also raised concerns about campaign financing tactics used by the Saakashvili bloc. In remarks on Imedi TV on June 20, Berdzenishvili charged that the National Movement party had not paid the 3600 lari ($1,861) advertising fee for an hour-long concert broadcast on Ajarian television on the eve of the poll and designed to promote Victorious Ajaria. "This is a very serious breach of the rules and we will be protesting very strongly about it," Berdzenishvili said.
Speaking with reporters on June 21, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze, a leader of the ruling National Movement, said that the party would listen to the Republican Party's complaints, but still labeled their decision to run in the Ajarian elections "a mistake," Civil Georgia reported.
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe, which was among the 110 international and 300 local observers sent to monitor the polls, stated that the election was the first time voters in Ajaria had been given "a real choice of candidates coming from different political parties and blocs." Though the Council's observers not detected any serious irregularities in the vote, problems cited included election procedure violations and the transportation of voters to the polls by political parties.
The most immediate consequence of the elections may be seen next week when Georgia's parliament opens debate on the constitutional status of Ajaria and its relationship to the central government in Tbilisi.
The president's triumph at the polls does not mean that the debate over Ajaria's autonomous status has ended. A campaign by Koba Davitashvili, a member of parliament and former ally of Saakashvili, to secure Ajarian voters' signatures for a petition to abolish Ajaria's autonomous status was denounced by SEC Chairman Irakly Pagava as "illegal," the Civil Georgia site reported. Parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, who traveled to Ajaria for the elections, and Levan Varshalomidze, the chairman of Ajaria's ruling interim council, echoed Pagava's criticism.
Saakashvili and other government officials have repeatedly asserted that they will protect the region's autonomy.