Controversy Already Swirling Around Elections in Zugdidi

On May 19, mayoral by-elections will be held in five cities across Georgia. The race which has drawn the most attention, and risen the most preliminary controversies, has been in Zugdidi. The capital of the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region in western Georgia, the Zugdidi municipality has a population of approximately 105,000 people. Facing off at the polls on Sunday for the leadership of the municipality are Sandra Roelofs, the wife of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, representing the United Opposition coalition, and Giorgi Shengelia, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

Political commentator Zaza Jgarkava predicts that the battle in Zugdidi “could be decisive for Georgian Dream...[made] obvious from the fact that Bidzina Ivanishvili himself has been seen there recently,” he wrote in a recent op-ed for GEORGIA TODAY. The Roelofs campaign is betting that Zugdidi will initiate a wave of opposition victories nationwide, with the slogan “Victory Begins with Zugdidi.”

On Tuesday, Roelofs’s party, United National Movement (UNM), reported that she and her team were physically assaulted by five attackers. The attack was allegedly led by a Samegrelo local named Gela Kvaratskhelia, who was detained after the incident. While being brought into the police station, he shouted to reporters gathered outside, “I have always been and will always be a supporter of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. I will not allow Sandra Roelofs to enter Samegrelo.”

The clash is reported to have lasted about 15 minutes, and UNM claims that police were slow to arrive to break it up. Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, however, denied that accusation, promising that criminals will be brought to justice regardless of political affiliations, and that the elections will be “free from violence and clean,” as the previous elections were.

Roelofs responded to the incident by meeting with Georgia’s diplomatic core, calling on them to ensure that the elections are free and fair. “We saw yesterday evening that the situation is very tense... We asked the diplomatic corps to react to this situation in order to prevent the repetition of what happened in the second round of presidential elections - bribery, rigging and pressure,” Roelofs briefed reporters after the meetings.

Later Tuesday afternoon, the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti Regional Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation into an alleged vote-buying scheme in the Zugdidi municipality, in connection with a hidden camera video recording that appears to show a member of the Georgian Dream party discussing orders “received from above” related to vote-buying and bribery with a member of the Zugdidi City Assembly.

Both sides are accusing the other of manufacturing controversy and conflict. “It seems [the government is] preparing for a massive special operation,” said Roelofs. On the Georgian Dream side, Vice Speaker of Parliament Tamar Chugoshvili said on Wednesday that “there are are obvious signs that the opposition have plans to stir unrest” in Zugdidi, and called on the diplomatic corps, local and foreign organizations to pay particular attention to the Zugdidi elections.

Earlier on Wednesday, UNM and its allied parties, forming the United Opposition, held a rally in front of the Zugdidi district election commission to protest the abuse of UNM members and what they say was the early, illegal transfer of voters’ lists to polling stations in Zugdidi. The United Opposition plans to send 5,000 activists from across the country to monitor the elections in Zugdidi on Sunday.

The United Opposition also demanded the return of voter rolls and seals issued by the district electoral commission. Although the Central Election Commission claims that the distribution was in line with regular standards, they agreed to return the lists and seals. The voter lists, the United Opposition feared, could be used to unfairly influence voters. The voter rolls and seals will be redistributed to the Zugdidi polling stations, together with ballot papers, a few hours before the elections.

By Samantha Guthrie

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16 May 2019 16:58