Whoever wins the presidential election in Georgia later this month will gain the distinction of being the first head of state here whose predecessor is stepping aside as part of the normal democratic process.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, swept to power in the 2003 “Rose Revolution” and elected the following year, is not eligible to stand for a third term, and is standing down. He replaced Eduard Shevardnadze, who had little option but to resign as the revolution unfolded. Before that, post-Soviet Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was forced out.
An opinion poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute suggests that the October 27 election will be won by Giorgi Margvelashvili. He was nominated by the Georgian Dream Coalition that came to power in the October 2012 parliamentary election, ousting Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).
According to that poll, Margvelashvili is in the lead with 39 per cent of respondents saying they would back him. The UNM’s candidate David Bakradze is in second place with 18 per cent.
Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament who heads the small Democratic Movement – United Georgia party, is a distant third with seven per cent. Another 22 per cent of respondents say they have not yet decided who to vote for.
After this election, constitutional changes will come into effect transferring many of the president’s powers to the prime minister and government. The head of state will no longer be able to dissolve parliament, and will be restricted to formally appointing a cabinet selected by parliament. Nor will the president play a role in shaping the government budget or have powers to issue binding decrees except under exceptional circumstances
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has dominated the country’s political scene since his Georgian Dream bloc came to power. But he has promised to leave politics altogether if his ally Margvelashvili becomes president.
“We Georgians must not bring shame upon ourselves. We must go out and win on October 27,” Ivanishvili said in televised comments. “We are a free people, but there is still a lot we must build, a lot we must do. And we must win a definitive victory, so there are no doubts or question-marks over our victory.”
Soso Tsiskarishvili, an analyst with the Club of Independent Experts, is among the majority of observers predicting a Margvelashvili win.
For Tsiskarishvili, the key question is not whether Margvelashvili will win, but whether he will manage to poll 50 per cent of the vote and thus avoid a run-off against his nearest rival.
A second round, Tsiskarishvili told IWPR, would in itself be “a big step forward for democracy in Georgia”.
Khatuna Lagazidze, co-founder of the Centre for European Values, said she was pleased that campaigning was being conducted in a civilised manner, in marked contrast to the vitriol surrounding last year’s parliamentary polls.
“This campaign is taking place on the moral high ground. There’s virtually none of the negative campaigning that used to go on. That’s a new thing for the Georgian electoral environment,” she told IWPR.
“I don’t expect there to be any shocking revelations which could change the balance of power, as there were in September last year,” Lagazidze added, referring to the screening of videos of prisoner abuse which helped turned public opinion against Saakashvili’s party.
Instead of concerns about manipulation and outright fraud that characterise elections in so many of the former Soviet republics, Lagazidze has a different kind of complaint to make – she argues that the election programmes put forward by the various candidates are both dull and short on content.
“You wouldn’t see people getting elected, or even running for election, in any of the developed countries if they made comments like these,” she added.
Some of the campaign speeches have certainly been underwhelming.
At one meeting with voters, Margvelashvili announced that “Georgia will be a country in which you can live in peace, whatever your creed or colour.”
Bakradze offered little more enlightenment, saying that “people are worried and they tell me the government hasn’t fulfilled its promises”.
When Burjanadze met voters in eastern Georgia, she too appeared vague about what she was offering.
“I can’t say that people here have a clear idea of what my election programme is, but there is support for the general idea I have put forward. People know why they support me and this reinforces my faith that with their support, I will definitely win,” she said.
One point of principle on which the candidates really are divided is just how far Georgia should go in trying to restore its relationship with Russia, which was always poor under Saakashvili but badly damaged by the brief war of August 2008. After the conflict, Moscow recognised the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, and backed that up with troop deployments in both places.
Bakradze is pledging to maintain the strong pro-Western policy pursued by Saakashvili.
Under Ivanishvili, the Georgian Dream coalition has made efforts to repair relations with Russia, but has made little headway, apart from Moscow’s agreement to lift a seven-year import ban on wines and other items from its southern neighbour.
Burjanadze has pledged to restore full diplomatic relations.
“I am the person who can restore relations… with Russia. The others can’t do that, since they get a heart tremor at the very mention of Russia, in case they get accused of being pro-Russian,” she told reporters as she opened her campaign headquarters in Telavi in eastern Georgia.
Lagazidze said that that while Margvelashvili was likely to win, the ranking of the losing candidates would reflect the public mood on relations with Moscow.
“It’s very important who takes second place in this election. Is it going to be a pro-western politician like the UNM candidate Bakradze, or a pro-Russian like Burjanadze? That will show which [view] has the backing of the second-largest segment of the electorate, and that will influence the country’s foreign policy,” she said. “You can hardly fail to notice how pro-Russian sentiment is on the rise.”
Lagazidze said another strong indication of future policy would come when Ivanishvili nominated his successor as prime minister, pointing out that “the ruling coalition has pro-Western people as well as people who oppose Georgia joining NATO”.
Ivanishvili says he has already chosen his successor, but has declined to say who it is.
“It would be wrong politically to do so right now, since there’s a presidential election taking place,” he told Georgian analysts at a televised meeting.
Most commentators expect the election to be followed by a government reshuffle, reflecting strains within a coalition that Ivanishvili cobbled together from a range of small parties last year.
“There are signs that the government team is not working like a single unit, particularly in parliament,” Tsiskarishvili told IWPR. “As the 2014 local elections get closer, the parties in the coalition will have more reasons to present themselves as separate entities. There is no solid, unifying issue that would allow them to field joint candidates, particularly in areas where the coalition partners don’t agree with one another.”
Tinatin Jvania is a freelance journalist in Georgia.
[Correction: Georgia's revolution was of course in 2003. Apologies.]