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Georgia Braces Itself For The Post-Saakashvili Era

A woman casts her ballot in the capital, Tbilisi, during parliament elections in Georgia in 2012.

A woman casts her ballot in the capital, Tbilisi, during parliament elections in Georgia in 2012.

In three months' time, on October 31, Georgians will go to the polls to elect a successor to current President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has dominated national politics for the past decade. Saakashvili is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, but in a recent talk-show interview he did not exclude his continued engagement in politics.

The presidential election will be a watershed in Georgian politics, insofar as it will usher in profound constitutional changes adopted in October 2010 that enhance the powers of the prime minister while reducing those of the head of state. It will also serve as a public vote of confidence in the government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM) in the October 2012 parliamentary elections. Georgian Dream currently has 86 seats in the 150-seat parliament, and the ENM 52. Thirteen deputies elected from the ENM have since quit that faction, and the election outcome will be crucial in determining whether or not the party survives as an influential political force.

The tensions between the present and former regimes resurfaced on July 20, when members of the ENM convening for a party conference were pelted with stones and bottles in the western town of Zugdidi by protesters whom the ENM claims were mobilized by Georgian Dream. Twelve protesters were arrested and fined 100 laris [about $60]. Georgian Dream has issued a formal statement denying any responsibility for the incident.

Opinion polls commissioned in March and in June 2013 by the National Democratic Institute show a decline in the popularity of both Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream that some observers attribute to their failure to meet voters' sometimes unrealistic expectations and aspirations for change. The percentage of respondents who said they would vote for Georgian Dream if local elections were held tomorrow fell from 62 percent in March to 54 percent in June. ENM parliamentarian Davit Darchiashvili construed the violence in Zugdidi as an attempt by Georgian Dream to deflect attention from that decline in support, and from disappointing economic statistics.

By contrast, the ENM's rating remained unchanged at 10 percent, compared with the 40.34 percent of the vote it garnered in October.

It is unclear to what extent that fall in the ENM's popularity is the direct consequence of a wave of arrests of former top government officials. Bacho Akhalaya, who served first as defense minister and then briefly last summer as interior minister, was arrested in November and is currently on trial on charges of torture and abuse of his official position. Former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom Saakashvili named in December to head the ENM, was taken into custody in May and has been charged with abuse and perverting the course of justice during the investigation into the murder in January 2006 by Interior Ministry personnel of banker Sandro Girgvliani.

It was widely assumed that Merabishvili, as ENM general secretary, would be nominated as that party's presidential candidate during a public rally in Tbilisi in April. Just days before that rally, however, Saakashvili announced that the ENM's presidential candidate would be selected in U.S.-style primaries in May. In early June, ENM parliamentarian Giorgi Vashadze said the party had decided against primaries; but that decision was reversed two weeks later.

In a further demonstration of inconsistency, the ENM announced on June 28 a boycott of parliamentary proceedings to protest the detention on suspicion of financial irregularities of four of its members on the Tbilisi municipal council. The party ended that boycott 10 days later.

Also on June 28, the ENM launched a series of six party conferences to assess the merits of four potential presidential candidates. They are former parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze; former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for European Integration Giorgi Baramidze; former parliamentary Provisional Commission for Restoring Territorial Integrity Chairman Shota Malashkhia; and parliamentary deputy Zurab Djaparidze.

Bakradze is widely viewed as the most likely choice, and with four "primaries" down and two to go, he is ahead. He has been publicly endorsed by Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, who prior to ENM's election defeat in October was himself regarded as a possible potential candidate. Bakradze has explained his rationale for seeking the presidency in terms of a moral obligation to make good for the injustices perpetrated by the ENM in the past, and not to turn his back on rank-and-file ENM members plunged into "a state of trauma, pain, and shock" by the "torrent" of accusations of misconduct leveled against the party.

Bakradze is a more moderate and flexible politician than the assertive and overbearing Baramidze. He has demonstrated on more than one occasion his readiness to seek compromise, most recently in talks earlier this month with his successor as parliament speaker, Davit Usupashvili, on further constitutional reform and ending the ENM boycott of parliamentary proceedings.

Registration of presidential candidates began on July 2; as of July 18, the Central Electoral Commission had received 14 applications, two of which have been rejected because the people involved hold dual citizenship. The most prominent presidential hopefuls are former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze; extraparliamentary Labor Party Chairman Shota Natelashvili; and Giorgi Targamadze, head of the small Christian-Democratic Movement that was part of the opposition in the outgoing parliament. Former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, who now heads the opposition Georgia'a Path party, has said she may run, but as a French national she, too, may fall foul of the prohibition on dual citizenship.

In early May, Georgian Dream nominated as its presidential candidate Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili. Prime Minister Ivanishvili predicted on July 3 that Margvelashvili would win in the first round. But the findings of the June NDA poll showed his popularity rating at only 29 percent, in contrast with the 52 percent of respondents who identified Georgian Dream as the party "closest" to them. Ten percent of respondents said they would vote for the ENM's candidate, five percent for Burjanadze, four percent for Targamadze, and three percent for Natelashvili.

Both Burjanadze and Targamadze believe the election will go to a runoff after no candidate garners over 50 percent on October 31.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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