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Georgians To Choose New President

  • Claire Bigg

A supporter of presidential candidate Davit Bakradze holds a Georgian national flag at an election rally in Tbilisi on October 24.

A supporter of presidential candidate Davit Bakradze holds a Georgian national flag at an election rally in Tbilisi on October 24.

Georgians are heading to the polls to choose a successor to Mikheil Saakashvili, the firebrand reformer who ruled their country for almost a decade.

The presidential vote on October 27 will put an end to an acrimonious, year-long cohabitation between Saakashvili and his rival, billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition ousted Saakashvili's cabinet in parliamentary elections last year.

Saakashvili is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term but has not excluded staying active in politics.

The elections will also usher in profound constitutional changes that will curtail the power of the president, effectively turning Georgia from a presidential into a parliamentary republic.

In Pictures: Mikheil Saakashvili, 2003-13

Iago Kachkachishvilil, the head of the sociology department at Tbilisi State University, says there will be a "completely new design of political forces in the country."

"We will have a new president whose [powers] are much lower than the [powers] of the current president. We will have a new constitutional order," Kachkachishvilil says.

As many as 23 candidates, many of them little known on Georgia's political arena, are vying for the presidency -- by far the highest number of contenders running for the post since the country's independence in 1991.

Leading Candidate

Leading the polls is Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili, a 44-year-old deputy minister and former education minister.

Margvelashvili does not belong to any of the parties aligned in the coalition, although he is a close confident of Ivanishvili.

His main foreign-policy goal is to pursue close ties with the West while mending fences with Russia, a balance the Georgian Dream has sought to achieve after Saakashvili's deeply fraught relations with Moscow that culminated in a 2008 war.

Margvelashvili, a philosopher by education, served twice as rector of the U.S.-funded Georgian Institute for Public Affairs.

In Focus: Saakashvili's Polarizing Legacy

While his supporters praise him as a talented, level-headed manager, his critics accuse him of lacking both political experience and charisma.

But some analysts say his relatively late entry into politics could actually appeal to many Georgians, weary of Saakashvili's flamboyant leadership and the bitter disputes that have marred Georgian politics in recent years.

Kachkachishvili, who knows Margvelashvili personally, says: "He has real advantages for holding this position. He is Western oriented, he is educated, he is also a balanced person by character. He is not loaded [down] by his political past. He was not a politician, he doesn't belong to a concrete political party and so that's why he will be, I hope, free from these brutal political games."

Margvelashvili says he is confident of garnering more than 50 percent of votes in the first round and has vowed to withdraw from the race if he must face a runoff.

A poll by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, however, gives Margvelashvili just 39 percent of the votes.

Watch: Experts Discuss Georgian Vote In Google Hangout

Davit Bakradze, a former parliament speaker and a member of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), trails him with a projected 18 percent.

According to the poll, Nino Burjanadze will come third with 13 percent.

Burjanadze, who helped lead the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power, served as parliamentary speaker during his first term before falling out with him.

She also criticizes the Georgian Dream coalition for failing to deliver on its promises to restore justice.

She favors rebuilding ties with Moscow and setting aside ambitions to join NATO, which she has described as "an illusion."

Despite a relatively calm campaign season, OSCE observers have voiced concerns about the fairness of the upcoming poll.

Many in Georgia are bracing for more political uncertainty.

Ivanishvili abruptly announced in July that he would name a successor and stand down shortly after the vote, although many predict he will continue to pull the strings.

Although he denies waging a political witch-hunt, he is widely accused of using selective justice to target Saakashvili and his camp.

There are fears that Margvelashvili's predicted victory, combined with enhanced prerogatives for the government and the parliament, will deprive Georgia of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Ivanishvili's allies.

Ed Lucas, the international editor of the British weekly "The Economist," says the real test is what happens afterwards.

"It doesn't seem to me that the UNM is going to do very well in the election, and the danger is that the Georgian Dream will see this as a vindication of their approach and then will press their advantage. I think this would be a pity," Lucas says.

Ivanishvili last week described Saakashvili as a "political corpse" and warned that the outgoing president could face prosecution when he leaves office.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​