President Saakashvili offered to cut his term in office by about eight months in a surprise proposal to hold presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously in 2008.
Opposition leaders denounced the proposal as Saakashvili’s administration’s “fear towards losing popularity.”
But some analysts suggested that the timing of the announcement – made against the background of Russian-Georgian tensions – is a clear sign that the decision may be linked with "foreign threats."
Levan Ramishvili, the head of the influential non-governmental group Liberty Institute, is known as a Saakashvili administration insider.
He says that the Saakashvili’s proposal is directly linked to the threat posed by Russia.
“Georgia needs a huge level of consolidation against the background of Russia’s threat. We should use the political capital gained from the local elections [Saakashvili’s ruling party won a landslide victory] as much as possible,” Levan Ramishvili told Civil Georgia on October 20.
He also said that the authorities are sparing no efforts to prevent the possibility of a Ukrainian scenario in Georgia.
“We should seriously take into consideration what has happened in Ukraine with the direct involvement of Russia… We already suffered after downplaying Russia’s threat once in 1921 [when Bolsheviks occupied Georgia],” Ramishvili said.
“Today Russia has more allies in the political parties in Georgia that are cooperating with Russia openly or covertly, and their number is higher than it seems with just one glance,” he said, adding that a “law on lustration is immediately needed” to reveal politicians with ties with Russia.
Ramishvili also alleged that the Kremlin is seriously considering a coup d'état in Georgia as the best way to make Tbilisi change its foreign policy.
“Russia will not even refrain from direct military intervention and this [possibility] is quite real… On the other hand we should take into consideration upcoming presidential polls in Russia in 2008… Russian special services need a foreign enemy for the election campaign. Ukraine can no longer serve as this kind of foreign enemy, and only Georgia remains,” Ramishvili said.
He also noted that Russia will also use the Kosovo case and might recognize the soveriegnty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which could lead to a chain reaction and “countries like Belarus and Venezuela might follow Russia in recognition of breakaway regions.” Meanwhile, he says, the United States will be preoccupied with Iran and North Korea.
“So this foreign political background is a major motive behind the President’s decision to hold presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously, which should serve as a referendum. This, in turn, will serve for the consolidation of Georgian statehood, and on the other hand should ease possibility of Russia’s aggression, which is very real,” Ramishvili said.
“These two years will be the most difficult for Georgia. If we are able to save our statehood in this period, we will survive,” he added.
Saakashvili cited the “waste of time and energy” of holding elections “once every year” as a reason behind his decision.
“The current presidential term will be cut by seven or eight months; but as we are in a transition period it will be better to hold [presidential and parliamentary] elections simultaneously,” Saakashvili said at a late-night news conference on October 19.
Opposition parties have already condemned the President’s initiative.
“This is the way towards Georgia’s ‘Turkmen-ization’ [referring to Turkmenistan, ruled by authoritarian President Saparmurat Niyazov] and an attempt to usurp power,” Davit Usupashvili, leader of the opposition Republican Party, said on October 20.
He said the President’s decision is driven by “multiple fears” including the fact that Georgian voters are showing increasing discontent towards the President and the ruling elite, while support for the opposition increases.
The Republican Party has also alleged that Saakashvili wants early presidential elections to prevent potential popular candidates, including those who are currently in the government, from running in the polls in spring 2008, as by that time they will fail to qualify for the presidential age requirement, which is set at 35. The Republicans were apparently referring to Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who will be 35 only in November, 2008.
Comments from other opposition leaders were along the same lines of Usupashvili’s allegations.
“There is a real threat to secure the overwhelming majority for the ruing party in the  parliamentary elections, which in turn could have endangered Saakashvili’s second term in office. So this kind of trick has been proposed under the pretext to save money by holding elections simultaneously. Saakashvili decided to cut his term in order to secure a second presidential term,” MP Pikria Chikhradze of the opposition New Rights party said on October 20.
“It is very strange that the government has time to think about how to win in next elections rather than to tackle tensions with Russia, how to address problem of Georgian deportees from Russia and also how to address problems related with the upcoming winter,” Salome Zourabichvili, leader of the Georgia's Way party, said.
Radical opposition Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili’s comments were in keeping with his traditional rhetoric, linking Saakashvili’s steps to his “patrons” in U.S. President Bush’s Administration.
“Through this immoral decision… Saakashvili wants to secure a second term in office while George Bush is in power,” Natelashvili said at a news conference on October 20.
MP Mikheil Machavariani, the Vice-Speaker of the Parliament, said that these are “absolutely groundless statements. They [opposition parties] are still in shock after their failure in the local elections, which is the reason of these absolutely groundless political statements by the opposition.”
“This is an idea worth thinking about. The president’s decision to cut his term is a compromise in exchange for a return back to a normal election process,” Parliamentary Chairperson Nino Burjanadze said.
The previous presidential elections were held on January 4, 2004, which were early polls after ex-President Shevardnadze was ousted as a result of the 2003 Rose Revolution – two years before the expiration of his term in office. The next elections are originally scheduled for April, 2009.
The constitution says that presidential elections should be held every five years on the second Sunday of April. The Constitution also states that parliamentary elections should be held at least 15 days before the expiration of the Parliament’s term. The inaugural session of the current Parliament was held on April 22, 2004.
Details of the Saakashvili-proposed Constitutional amendments are not yet known; but if the provision on parliamentary elections remains in force, then both elections will be held by mid-spring, 2008.