No Clear Frontrunner as Georgia Heads for Election

For the first time in years, President Saakashvili's party faces a serious challenger.

No Clear Frontrunner as Georgia Heads for Election

For the first time in years, President Saakashvili's party faces a serious challenger.

Georgian Dream rally in Tbilisi, May 2012. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)
Georgian Dream rally in Tbilisi, May 2012. (Photo: Mirian Koridze)
Wednesday, 19 September, 2012

With two weeks to go until an important parliamentary election, Georgians are in the unusual position of not knowing in advance who is going to win.

In the eight years since Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in a bloodless revolution, the political landscape has been dominated by his United National Movement, UNM.

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s announcement that he was taking up opposition politics a year ago changed things completely. His Georgian Dream coalition has come from nowhere to present a real electoral threat to Saakashvili’s allies.

Fourteen parties are fielding candidates, but the October 1 election is seen as a straight fight between the UNM and the Georgian Dream bloc.

This election is particularly important because of constitutional amendments that will shift powers from the presidency to parliament and the prime minister. The changes will come into force next year after a presidential ballot in which Saakashvili is not eligible to seek re-election. After that, the party with a majority in parliament will appoint the prime minister, who will become the most powerful figure in the country.

Although Ivanishvili hopes to become prime minister one day, he is not standing for election in October as he was stripped of Georgian citizenship shortly after siding with the opposition last year.

Georgian Dream’s popularity is largely based on perceptions of Ivanishvili himself. Until last year, he lived a private life, never giving interviews or speaking in public. Despite this, his wealth and generosity were the stuff of legend.

According to Ramaz Sakvarelidze, a professor at Tbilisi State University, “The public believes that a man who has engaged in charity will bring the country many benefits in future.”

As this crucial election approaches, opposition parties and some non-government organisations have accused the government of using unfair methods to help secure a UNM victory.

“We are doing all we can to prevent falsification of this election, and we welcome the efforts of international observers. But we will not allow unfairness, and if the authorities commit fraud, we will stand up to them,” David Usupashvili, one of the leaders of the Georgian Dream coalition, said.

A series of high-profile foreign politicians who have visited Georgia in recent weeks have urged the authorities to ensure a fair vote.

Visiting Tbilisi on September 6, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the ballot as a litmus test for Georgia’s progress towards full democracy.

“I trust that all political players in Georgia will play a responsible role in this process,” he said after meeting Saakashvili.

Similar calls were heard from United States Senator John McCain, and the foreign ministers of Sweden and Estonia.

Saakashvili’s spokeswoman Manana Manjgaladze has given an assurance that the vote will be squeaky-clean, with a large presence of international observers and a special commission that will check the electoral roll and resolve disputes arising after the election.

“The president is confident that this election will be yet more confirmation of the maturity and vitality of Georgian democracy,” Manjgaladze said.

Many commentators worry that whichever party emerges victorious, the loser might not accept defeat, sparking massive street protests and instability.

In remarks addressed to the international community, Ivanishvili urged it to help guarantee a fair vote, and ended with a hint that there would be trouble if his party lost.

“We and you face the same choice – either we take decisive measures immediately to ensure the election is free and fair, or else in one month’s time, we will have to deal with the consequence of a stolen election,” he said.

Nana Kurashvili is a freelance journalist in Georgia.

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