Until now, the country's political arena has offered up few figures with the charisma to challenge Saakashvili. But the National Council, the opposition coalition that groups 10 parties, hopes that changed with its November 12 announcement that 42-year-old Levan Gachechiladze -- a personable wine entrepreneur and nationalist lawmaker -- would be its candidate to face the Western-educated incumbent.
Fellow opposition member Salome Zurabishvili, who has been tapped as Gachechiladze's likely choice for prime minister, is bullish on the opposition’s odds. "Our chances are extremely good because we have the whole Georgian population behind us," said Zurabishvili, who was foreign minister under Saakashvili before being dismissed in October 2005. "Mr. Saakashvili has all the administrative resources behind him, but he has nothing else."
Crowded Opposition Field
How much of a challenge Gachechiladze can mount, however, may depend on how many other opposition hopefuls throw their hats in the ring. Three have already done so: Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili; David Gamkrelidze, the head of the New Rightists; and Badri Patarkatsishvili, one of Georgia's richest men, who has declared his intention to dedicate all available resources to ousting Saakashvili.
It's unclear whether all of them will ultimately run. But their announcements highlight a disunity that has plagued the opposition from its inception -- and that it can ill afford with a major election battle now looming.
Bakur Kvashilava, a political commentator, says lack of cohesion may be the opposition’s Achilles’ heel. "It depends on what we mean by the term 'opposition.’ If we mean resistance to certain decisions taken by the government, then I'd say there has always been an opposition, and that it gradually gained strength in 2005-2006,” Kvashilava said. “However, if we think of the opposition in terms of political organizations that are viable, with their own electorate, concrete platforms, and the like -- then nothing has changed."
The parties that make up the National Council boast widely divergent agendas and ideologies, ranging from the leftist-populist Labor Party to the Conservative and Republican parties. Some, like the Republicans, have been active for years. Others, like the Movement for a United Georgia -- founded by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who has since retreated from politics -- are just a few months old.
Two important opposition groups -- the New Rightists and the Industrialists -- have not joined the National Council, but are sympathetic to many of its causes. It is not clear whether Natelashvili's declaration of candidacy will signal a withdrawal of the Labor Party from the council.
In October, the National Council was galvanized by the arrest of Okruashvili following his startling allegations -- later retracted -- that Saakashvili had sought the murder of political opponents.
It issued a joint manifesto and a call that parliamentary elections, which Saakashvili had bumped from spring to autumn 2008, be moved back to the original date. The council's actions prompted speculation that, for the first time since Saakashvili rose to power in 2003, a unified opposition was gaining strength.
Irreconcilable Mixture Of Views
But its subsequent protest rallies -- which began on November 2 with as many as 70,000 demonstrators taking part before being forcibly dispersed five days later -- made it clear that the united opposition still lacked cohesion on many key issues. According to Kvashilava, the many slogans and messages heard at the rallies reflected an already irreconcilable mixture of views.
"For some people, 'Georgia without the Chinese' was a priority. Others favored spring [parliamentary] elections, as stipulated in the constitution. Still others focused on [the protection of] private property, or concern that Georgian villages were being deserted," he said. "Some were angry because they felt they had been marginalized. And so on. This was a civic protest, not a political one. Absolutely every social stratum participated in it -- they just didn't have any common political aims."
Gachechiladze has said he will base his platform on abolishing the institution of the Georgian presidency and adopting a parliamentary democracy. His platform has prompted speculation that Zurabishvili, who is constitutionally barred from seeking the presidency because she holds a French passport, is the National Council's true candidate.
The other opposition hopefuls have yet to clarify their positions. But it is unlikely any will generate sufficient enthusiasm to ensure triumph, or even a near-miss, at the ballot box -- particularly if the field is crowded with contenders.
Opposition candidates face other disadvantages in addition to internal divisions. Campaigning is set to begin on November 22, leaving just over a month for candidates to make an impression on voters. But the current state of emergency and the crackdown on nongovernment media -- which by coincidence may run through November 22 -- ensures that Saakashvili is the only politician who will be seen on television in the days ahead.
Still, Saakashvili's challengers do have one advantage: mounting public dissatisfaction with the status quo. Poverty and social welfare remain key issues, and Saakashvili's economic reforms have so far done little to raise standards of living for average Georgians.
"These are people who have lost something as a result of these reforms," says analyst Ghia Nodia. "Perhaps they do not represent the poorest stratum of Georgian society, but they are certainly those who did not benefit from the Rose Revolution."
That bitterness toward the government has only increased as a result of the violence of the past week. Few Georgians are likely to gloss over the sanctioned use of rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters. The subsequent decision to impose a state of emergency and media blackout may only further heighten anger.
Kvashilava says through its actions, the Georgian government may have inadvertently handed the opposition its most effective weapon in challenging the existing order.
"I think this is the only factor that the opposition can use to truly challenge the government," he says. "The methods used by the government authorities have enabled the opposition the chance to compete as an equal -- be it in January, or in the parliamentary elections."