Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
With just six months before the Georgian presidential election, solid popularity ratings for the governing Georgian Dream coalition indicates it's poised for victory in October. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's choice for the coalition's presidential candidate, however, has prompted questions about his own political motives.
While a move to a parliamentary system means that Georgia's new president will have a shadow of the powers currently enjoyed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian Dream's decision in May to go with an academic - with little known political ambitions and no affiliation to any one political party - appears to add to perceptions that Ivanishvili is focused more on eliminating competition in the coalition than fostering a new leader to follow him.
Ivanishvili's choice, Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili, did not come as a total surprise. Margvelashvili, a former university rector and a well-respected political analyst, has long been seen as an Ivanishvili favourite. Over the past eight months in power, the prime minister has referred to him as one of the strongest members of the cabinet. Ivanishvili has also stood by Margvelashvili, tapping him to take over Defense Minister Irakli Alasania's post as deputy prime minister after a falling out with Alasania, and defending Margvelashvili's criticism of the coalition's vision for Georgia's new labour code.
After months of scandal, arrests and unfulfilled promises, Margvelashvili is also one of the few ministers to make an impact over the past eight months since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power: he took on - with mixed results - tycoon Kakha Bendukidze over his purchase of the Agriculture University and has announced plans to provide free textbooks to all children in public schools.
Confident of victory
In the ongoing battle against President Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party, the Margvelashvili nomination stands out, however, for its apparent confidence in victory. Because without the pull of Georgian Dream behind him, Margvelashvili looks on paper a weak candidate. He is popular as a political commentator, but he has a mixed reputation as an administrator and lacks the political experience of possible UNM candidates like former parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze or former defense minister Giorgi Baramidze.
Currently, however, the UNM does not present a major concern for the Georgian Dream. Saakashvili cannot run for another term, and his party is still struggling to find its base and solidify support after its defeat in the October 2012 parliamentary elections. The UNM is in a weak position to win the presidential race, with just 10% support, compared with the Georgian Dream's 60%, according to ratings based on the findings of a National Democratic Institute March nationwide survey of 3,103 respondents.
Indeed, the prime minister had named other members of the coalition as possible presidential candidates in the months after taking power following the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Vakhtang Khmaladze, a specialist on the Georgian Constitution and a member of the Republican Party - part of the Georgian Dream coalition - had been mentioned several times early in Ivanishvili's term. Other names, including former foreign minister Salome Zourabishvili and former footballer-turned-energy minister, Kakha Kaladze, were also floated by the media in the run-up to the coalition's official announcement.
But on May 11, Ivanishvili said Margvelashvili was the "ideal option." Stressing that the education minister is "creative," "unique," and a "team player," Ivanishvili said Margvelashvili is perfect presidential material, and one of the prime minister's few confidants.
But public reaction to Margvelashvili's nomination has been mixed. Some see him as a welcome change from the larger-than-life personalities and political virtuosos who have forged modern Georgian politics. Others, however, are questioning if Ivanishvili's choice was dictated by an agenda to control power instead of risking the presidential portfolio on a possible political challenger.
Other options, like Alasania or Zourabishvili - if as a dual citizen she were to be allowed to run - could have given them and their respective political parties the political strength to become a competitor to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party in the 2014 local elections.
Alasania, the head of the Free Democrats, made no secret of his presidential ambitions prior to the October 2012 election. As minister of defense with his own political party and a network of supporters in the West, Alasania was poised to be a threat to any other presidential candidate in the race. As a presidential candidate, he would have also sent a clear message of Georgia's orientation toward Europe and the US. He opted out of running, however, after a fall out with Ivanishvili in February, stating that he prefers to concentrate on defense reforms and Georgia's bid for membership in Nato.
Zourabishvili would have had difficulty running since she is a dual French and Georgian citizen and has not lived in Georgia for the past two years, both of which make her ineligible to run under the current law. She returned to Tbilisi, however, this year and has been increasing her public profile, a move that seemed to indicate she is ready to return to politics. While her popularity declined along with other Georgian opposition groups after a series of unsuccessful protests at the height of Saakashvili's power, Zourabishvili has enjoyed strong political support in the past as the foreign minister who was responsible for negotiating the 2005 deal with Moscow that led to Russian bases on Georgian territory being closed.
Ivanishvili, however, appears to prefer a political confidant in the post of president, not a potential kingmaker. "This man has all the features in abundance to be a good president," he said during the press conference on May 11. "Whenever I come across difficulties I always call Giorgi and ask him [for advice]."
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