Georgians began voting in parliamentary elections on Monday, a day after the interior minister pledged to prevent election day clashes. President Mikheil Saakashvili (photo) is being challenged by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s coalition.
Georgia’s interior ministry on Sunday promised to prevent violence at polling stations, a day before the ex-Soviet state votes amid heightened tensions caused by a jail torture scandal.
“I believe that we can ensure an environment on election day free of intimidation and pressure, allowing every voter in Georgia to cast their vote in a peaceful environment,” Interior Minister Eka Zguladze told AFP.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, who swept to the presidency after the Rose Revolution of 2003 and led the country into a brief, disastrous war with Russia in 2008, says his main challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili would move the former Soviet republic away from West and bring it closer to Moscow once again.
Markus Meyer, FRANCE24’s correspondent in Tbilisi, said Saturday that tensions were running high because both the ruling party and the opposition had boasted of winning the election despite half of voters telling opinion polls that they were still undecided just days before the vote.
“There is a deep sense of polarisation right now,” he said. “The ruling party has a lot of support among those who are afraid of change and want stability. They remember times before the ruling party came to power when it was dangerous to even walk the streets and utilities were only occasionally working.”
Atmosphere of fear
Former foreign minister and pro-democracy activist Salome Zourabichvili told FRANCE 24 that fear was preventing people from choosing their camp.
“Even eight years after the revolution and 20 years after [gaining] independence, voters are scared. Georgia is not yet a truly democratic country; it remains very much a post-Soviet country. Only if there is a balance of power between [President Mikheil Saakashvili’s] ruling party and the opposition, then will this begin to change,” she said on Friday.
“Many people feel disappointed by the ruling party,” Meyer added. “Lots of Georgians are still very poor and feel left out of the progress the country has been making.”
Revelations this month of the torture and rape of prison inmates sparked protests and hit the ruling party as it faces a strong challenge from an opposition coalition led by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili in Monday’s parliamentary polls.
nterior Minister Zguladze said police would show restraint when dealing with any polling day incidents in order not to inflame tensions. “The tactic which police will employ will be very cautious… Only as a last resort we will use force,” she said.
Zguladze said that since the torture scandal erupted there had been 50 arrests across the country amid a series of scuffles involving political activists, ordinary Georgians, public officials and police officers.
Meyer said that both ruling and opposition leaders had also called on voters to show restraint on election day.