Georgia’s voters will for the seventh and final time since the end of the Soviet Union directly elect their president on October 28, before indirect presidential elections are introduced as part of the country’s transition to a parliamentary republic.
Ruling party Georgian Dream will aim to take absolute political control of the small Christian country of 3.5mn bordering the Black Sea and sat at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Ironically, that’s exactly what the party was fighting against back in 2012, when it overthrew then president Mikheil Saakashvili. An opposition victory, on the other hand, would perhaps provide a certain political balance and make reform efforts aimed at fixing a lack of democratic institutional development more credible.
Although the electorate seems rather passive—turnout could be as low as 30%, according to some polls, while by October 26 it was thought that 40%-50% of voters were as yet undecided on whom to back—the election result could be critical to the magnitude and pace of the institutional transformations planned by the ruling party. Judicial reforms are seen as particularly critical to Georgia’s evolution as an independent, democratic state.
Georgian Dream has dominated the legislative and executive branches for six years, but it has disappointed the electorate with a lack of vision. The party prompted great expectations when it replaced Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), founded in late 2001.
Unless there is a major surprise amid extremely low turnout, the overall external orientation of Georgia as a long-time candidate for European Union and Nato memberships will not change. All the mainstream candidates agree in this area, but as remarks by visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear in late August, there is little appetite in Europe to deliver momentum in this area given the stubborn hostility Russia has towards any idea of its small neighbour to the south integrating into the West. So clear was she on this point, that she left the Georgians nonplussed.
Pullout of NGOs
The ballot—with 25 candidates standing in all, the most since 1991’s first presidential election—will take place amid a certain deterioration of democratic practices in the country, marked by non-governmental organisations lately pulling out of the election monitoring body, accusing Georgian Dream of using a range of state administrative resources to back up the chances of the independent candidate it is endorsing, French-born Salome Zurabishvili.
Georgia’s richest man and former Georgian PM from 2012 to 2013 Bidzina Ivanishvili—said to have a personal wealth of around $4.6bn—retook the leadership of Georgian Dream in April this year. The businessman and politician is seeking to secure the presidency’s support, or at least neutrality, for the two years that remain of his party’s term in office. Incumbent President Giorgi Margvelashvili, the Georgian Dream winning candidate in 2013 who is not on the ticket this time around, has demonstrated a certain degree of independence and Ivanishvili cannot be sure that Zurabishvili will remain loyal if she triumphs.
Born into a family of Georgian emigrants in Paris in 1952, Zurabishvili did not visit Georgia until 1986. She was appointed as France’s ambassador in Georgia and was briefly made Georgia’s foreign affairs minister by Saakashvili after she was granted Georgian citizenship. Elected in 2016 as an independent MP, Zurabishvili’s chances of winning the presidential elections are entirely down to the endorsement of Georgian Dream.
The opposition, meanwhile, is deeply divided between the UNM, which has put forward another ex-foreign minister, Grigol Vashadze, as its candidate, and small pro-Western conservative parties that back former parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze, nominated by European Georgia.
The greatest asset of main opposition challenger Vashadze is the electorate’s frustration with the disappointing performance of the ruling regime, but his ties with Russia are a threat to his ambitions: he held a Russian passport until four years after the five-day Russo-Georgian War of 2008 that broke out over the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Born in Tbilisi, Vashadze graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1981 and worked for the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 1990 to 2008, he engaged in private business and lived mostly in Moscow and New York. He returned to Georgia in 2005.
Independent polls are difficult to come by in Georgia, but Zurabishvili appears to have the lead in pre-election opinion surveys with just short of one-third of the vote. Some 31% of respondents in a poll conducted by ipn.ge, ambebi.ge and kvirispalitra.ge from October 22-23 said they would back her.
Frontrunner Zurabishvili was followed by Vashadze on 27% and Davit Usupashvili of the Development Movement on 11%. European Georgia’s Bakradze was found to have just 5% of support, though other polls conducted in mid-October gave him around 15% and another in the third week of the month placed him with 30%.
In an opinion poll carried out by the same news portals across October 2-3, Zurabishvili and Vashadze were attracting 28% of votes each.
The election will go to a run-off unless the first-round winner carries more than 50% of the vote.
There is no doubt that there are plenty of pressing economic concerns for voters who choose to cast a ballot in the last direct election of a Georgian president (a 2017 constitutional amendment will shortly take effect meaning future presidents will be elected by a 300-member College of Electors, comprising parliamentarians and local and regional political representatives). But, in a race to the bottom rather familiar to Georgian electioneering, the campaigning has since September been dominated by audio dumps that allegedly expose official wrongdoing to the public.
"The release of the tapes confirms that none of the political parties are capable of arguing about problems and challenges facing the country," Elene Melikishvili of Kings College told RFE/RL on October 24.
"The key issues that Georgia has to tackle are the lack of institutional development, particularly the issues related to the rule of law, economic inequality, and weak political pluralism. The rule of law is of the utmost importance because it affects all aspects of life. And interestingly the political parties are unable to offer viable and workable plans that could improve the situation."
The campaign was seen as mostly uneventful until a succession of audiotapes, aired by Rustavi 2, a national broadcaster seen as tilted towards the opposition, grabbed attention. One recording was of an alleged phone call between former Sports Minister Levan Kipiani and owner of Iberia TV, Zaza Okuashvili, over potential help for a fee from a person close to Georgian Dream founder Ivanishvili in dealing with the station's financial difficulties.
Other leaks to the media include an alleged recording from the prosecutor's office with claims that former Saakashvili personally sanctioned the killing of Georgian billionaire and failed presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili. He died amid suspicious circumstances 10 years ago at his home near London. Saakashvili has categorically refuted the claims.
Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze has described the recordings as part of an effort by the opposition to create "dissonance" before the election. The aim, he said, was to "create certain expectations that the polls won't be conducted in a free and peaceful manner".
He added: "They should not have any illusions about that; the public understands full well where the line lies between the reality and [the opposition's] mysticism."