Near photo-finish in Georgia’s presidential election first-round vote

Near photo-finish in Georgia’s presidential election first-round vote
A polling station in Tbilisi visited by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly election observation mission. / OSCE PA.
By bne IntelliNews October 29, 2018

French-born former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili is to face another ex-foreign minister Grigol Vashadze in a runoff for the Georgian presidency to be held by December 2.

The first-round vote gave Zurabishvili, an independent candidate who has the backing of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, a wafer-thin lead of 38.64% of votes to 37.74% over Grigol Vashadze, who is supported by an opposition coalition including main opposition party United National Movement (UNM), the Central Election Commission (CEC) said on October 29, a day after the vote.

Former speaker of parliament Davit Bakradze, nominated by the opposition European Georgia party, trailed home in third place among a field of 25 with 10.97% of the vote. Bakradze said his party would throw its support behind Vashadze in the runoff.

The final first-round results must be published within 20 days, while the runoff must take place within two weeks after that.

Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze congratulated Georgians after the polls closed, saying the vote was held in a "peaceful, free, and democratic environment."

"We all are serving the nation," said outgoing President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is not seeking a second term, after placing his vote.

Transparency International Georgia said its observers had reported "up to 90" violations ranging from "insignificant" to "relatively serious" ones. They included alleged vote rigging and vote buying.

Modest turnout
Turnout for the election stood at a modest 46.7%, according to officials, in line with expectations and almost exactly the same figure as was seen for the 2013 presidential election.

Vashadze is expected to hold a slim advantage in the second round. He will benefit from a consolidation of opposition forces ahead of the runoff, while Zurabishvili will count on 'big tent' party Georgian Dream, led by billionaire and ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, perhaps stepping up its massive backing.

Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Georgian Labour Party, won 3.74% of votes. But his voters are seen as equally against Georgian Dream and the other opposition parties, particularly the centre-right UNM, regarded as associated with former President Mikheil Saakashvili. Other presidential candidates included Davit Usupashvili (2.26% of votes), Zurab Japaridze (2.3%) and Kakha Kukava (1.34%).

Zurabishvili, 66, served as Georgia's foreign minister for just over a year before she was fired in 2005 following disagreements with parliament.

The UNM, which is the main player among 11 opposition groups in all that have got behind Vashadze, was founded by Saakashvili, the former Rose Revolution leader now living in exile abroad Saakashvili was president from 2004 until 2013, the year after Georgian Dream defeated the UNM in parliamentary elections.

Constitutional amendments passed last year mean that future presidents will be elected by a 300-member College of Electors, comprising of MPs and local and regional political representatives.

Aiming for full political control
In this last contest under the current presidential elections system, Georgian Dream will in the runoff aim to take full 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 kind of dominance is exactly what the party was fighting against back in 2012, when it overthrew 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. 

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 UNM, founded in late 2001.

The overall external orientation of Georgia as a long-time candidate for European Union and Nato memberships is expected to change in the foreseeable future. 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.

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.