Georgia's parliamentary elections on Wednesday are another touchstone for democracy. There is plenty at stake for Tblisi.
Georgia continues to clash with Russia over its support for secessionist rebels in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Last month, a Georgian unmanned unarmed aerial vehicle (UAV) was shot down over the Abkhazian conflict zone. In order to count on continued Western support in that confrontation, and justify NATO's promise of eventual membership, Tbilisi needs to demonstrate its commitment to democratic values.
This commitment has been in doubt since last November's violent suppression of opposition demonstrations expressing disillusionment with President Mikheil Saakashvili's regime. Saakashvili sought to defuse the situation by calling an early presidential election in January to test popular support, winning outright; however, the opposition claims the result was fraudulent, and voting should have gone to a second round.
It is expecting fraud this time too. In March, the government rushed through constitutional amendments that raised from one-third to one-half the number of deputies elected in single-seat constituencies, with opposition hunger strikers urging a 100% proportional party-list system.
The 'Rose Revolution' of 2003 that seemed to offer Georgia a new political beginning is wilting. A series of Saakashvili's associates have fallen away since then, including ex-Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, now a prominent oppositionist, and controversial ex-Defence Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who was sacked in 2006 and has now sought asylum in France. Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze recently withdrew her name from Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) party list.
Saakashvili has said the elections must be exemplary, but has yet to convince local officials. The UNM candidate in Tsageri withdrew after being caught on tape threatening to sack officials if they failed to ensure his election. The opposition is campaigning negatively against Saakashvili and has, as usual, failed to unite against the UNM, which would probably win even without underhand tactics, but may fall short of a majority. With the main opposition grouping already calling for protest rallies on polling day, the elections may only add to Georgia's political woes.