Georgian elections pit fractured opposition against Pres. Saakashvili's governing party

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Elections Sunday for local positions across the former Soviet republic of Georgia will give voters their first chance to pass judgment, even if indirectly, on the president who led them in a disastrous war with Russia nearly two years ago.

But the opposition, which tried to force President Mikhail Saakashvili to resign last year, is badly fractured now, and polls show Saakashvili's party is poised to do very well.

The August 2008 war with Russia was a national trauma. Russian forces drove deep into Georgia and two separatist regions broke the last hold the Georgian government had over them.

Although Georgians almost universally denounced Russia for brutality and imperial ambitions, many also blamed Saakashvili, saying he touched off the hostilities by ordering an unjustified barrage of the capital of one of the Russian-backed separatist regions.

Following the war, the president's position seemed tenuous. Weeks of protests aimed at forcing him out of office broke out last spring, but they fizzled after a couple of months. The opposition forces have not been able to regroup since, and they appear now to have little chance of success in the local ballots.

The elections Sunday will be for local councils and for mayor of the country's capital, Tbilisi, but they can be read as an informal referendum on Saakashvili's presidency.

The most closely watched race is for Tbilisi mayor, the first time it will be a directly elected post. It is one of the most prominent political positions in the country and the winner will likely be in a strong position to succeed Saakashvili when his second term expires in 2013.

The incumbent mayor, Saakashvili ally Gigi Ugulava, has a lead of at least 40 percentage points over the nearest of his eight challengers, according to polls.

Ugulava's popularity stems partly from the comparative prosperity that has visited Tbilisi during his five years in office, with shiny construction projects rising and cute cafes dotting once-shabby neighborhoods. He also appears to be benefiting from biased media coverage and opposition disunity.

The country's two most popular private TV channels have "demonstrated their support for the ruling party and its Tbilisi mayoral candidate," the election observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a report this month. "Both channels also devoted extensive and favorable coverage to the activities of authorities outside the campaign context."

The report also noted some questionable practices by Tbilisi authorities, such as giving out discounted cinema tickets marked with a prominent "5," the number on the ballot for the United National Movement party of Saakashvili and Ugulava.

"The opposition doesn't have unity or resources," said political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze. "This collapse is connected with the (protests) of April 2009, when they gambled that Saakashvili would resign. This didn't happen and the voters were disillusioned,"

"The opposition's chances, realistically, aren't great," said another analyst, Georgi Khukhashvili. "In the regions, they're hopelessly losing the local elections."

Ugulava's nearest challenger, according to recent polls, is Irakli Alasania, Saakashvili's former ambassador to the United Nations and now an opposition leader. Polls show that fewer than 10 percent of voters support him.

All the mayoral candidates say unemployment and economic development are their main issues.


Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to his report.

(This version CORRECTS gender in penultimate graf.)