Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
With Georgians headed to the polls on October 27, it appears clear that Giorgi Margvelashvili will be the country's next president. However, second place is nearly as important in this race, with the other candidates needing to draw support for the bitter political fight that will follow the vote.
Georgia's presidential election is expected to reinforce the position of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, whose candidate Margvelashvili, is the clear frontrunner. The election will see the departure of Georgia's long-standing President Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgian Dream's billionaire founder Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who says he will stand down after the poll, but both have indicated they will continue to wield their influence on Georgia's political scene.
On the surface, the presidential election bears little resemblance to last year's highly charged parliamentary vote: with no dynamic personalities leading the race, the presidential election appears to be little more than a nationwide vote of confidence for Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition.
The election also marks the end of Georgia's tenure as a super-presidential system, and whoever wins the vote will step into office in a parliamentary system with vastly reduced authority. The real power, based on the constitutional amendment that will come into effect following the polls, is to be split between the parliament and the prime minister.
Ostensibly there are three front runners in the race - Ivanishvili's advisor and former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili, former parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze representing Saakashvili's United National Movement party, and Nino Burjanadze, a former Saakashvili ally turned opposition politician. In reality, however, with just days before the vote, Margvelashvili has a strong lead and is expected to cruise to victory in the first round.
That scenario - a clean win for Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition - is a necessity for the prime minister. Ivanishvili, a billionaire who came to power in a surprise victory during last year's parliamentary elections, needs an undisputed win for his team so he can step down from power next month and hand power to an as-yet-unknown successor.
That hand-off, Ivanishvili has pledged, will move the country firmly from the realm of personality-driven politics to one of institutions and stability. But to make that happen, the Georgian Dream candidate needs a strong victory, to give the government (and Ivanishvili) a clear mandate to move forward.
Both the PM and Margvelashvili have made their potential win into such a priority that if he fails to clear the 50% threshold in the first round, Margvelashvili has promised to drop out. Pollsters and the prime minister have vowed that will not happen.
In Georgia, however - especially in politics and particularly over the past year - things rarely go as planned. Even if Margvelashvili breezes to victory on Sunday, there is little sign the Georgian Dream coalition will be safe from political conflict post-election.
In an impassioned speech to students on October 24, Saakashvili vowed to keep up the fight even after he leaves the presidency. Drawing comparisons between Ivanishvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the outgoing president vowed his team is "not finishing our struggle."
For Saakashvili's party, as well as any other political hopefuls, garnering a respectable result during the October 27 vote is an important harbinger of their political weight moving forward. Second place is vitally important in this race. Even if neither candidate can garner enough votes to force a second round, the support they receive is vital to push them forward to Georgia's next election - the vote for local governments in 2014.
Both Bakradze and Burjanadze have been trailing Margvelashvili in the polls for months. Margvelashvili, a former education minister with little personal political standing, has benefited from his close relationship to the prime minister, but Burjanadze, who has campaigned largely on the promise to jail Saakashvili and his inner circle for crimes allegedly committed after the Rose Revolution, has been creeping up in the polls.
Ivanishvili has dismissed the country's opposition in general - and Saakashvili in particular - as irrelevant for Georgia's future. The president, he has repeatedly warned, could even face questioning after he leaves office.
There is little sign, however, that either Burjanadze or Saakashvili are listening. Burjanadze, a former parliamentary speaker, who twice served as interim president, has vowed protests if she does not win on October 27, which has broadly been interpreted as a promise to renew the street demonstrations that were once a regular feature of Georgian political life. Saakashvili, who came to power in a revolution sparked by such demonstrations, also appears to be gearing up for a political battle.
While he may be leaving public office, the outgoing president has made it clear he is not leaving politics. "[T]he ideological struggle is underway within [the country] to determine Georgian identity ... Ivanishvili said he wants [a] society which he can rule from backstage, from above. I want [a] society which will be free and which will rule itself," Saakashvilii has said, according Civil.ge "This struggle has started for these upcoming elections, but will continue after these elections. Everything is still ahead."
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