On October 27, some 3.5 million Georgians will go to the polls to elect a successor to incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has dominated Georgian politics for the past decade, even after the defeat of his United National Movement (ENM) in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot.
That election ushered in Georgia's first peaceful and democratic transition of power since independence.
One year later, the country is set to enter electoral terra incognita once again if none of the 23 presidential candidates polls the 50 percent-plus-one vote needed for a first-round victory.
All five previous presidential ballots since 1991 were decided in the first round.
In addition, in light of constitutional amendments
enacted three years ago, the new president will no longer be the country's most powerful political figure.
Many of the most important presidential prerogatives, including the direction of foreign and domestic policy, will be transferred in the wake of the ballot to the prime minister.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream (KO) coalition won 85 of the 150 seats in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, has announced
his intention of stepping down next month and it is not yet clear who will succeed him.
The presidential ballot is therefore less about who will succeed Saakashvili as Georgia's most powerful political figure and more a vote of confidence in the ability of the various political forces aligned in the Georgian Dream coalition to deliver on Ivanishvili's promises to continue the ENM's policies of renewal, economic revival, democratization, and integration with Euro-Atlantic structures.
Georgia's Central Election Commission registered
23 of the 54 would-be presidential candidates. (Saakashvili is barred by the constitution from serving a third consecutive term).
(Georgian Dream), unkindly dubbed
"the plasticene man" because of his amorphous views and lack of charisma
Former parliament speaker David Bakradze (ENM)
Democratic Movement – United Georgia head Nino Burjanadze, who served as parliament speaker during Saakashvili's first presidential term
Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili
Union of Traditionalists chairman Akaki Asatiani, who on October 22 threw his support behind Burjanadze, but cannot at this late stage withdraw from the race (the deadline for doing so was October 17)
For A Just Georgia party leader Sergo Djavakhidze
Christian Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze
People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili, a former ENM member who split with Saakashvili in 2004
Former Central Election Commission chairman Zurab Kharatishvili
, nominated by the European Democrats of Georgia
Teimuraz Mzhavia, former chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile
Mikheil Saluashvili, head of a small political party named Union for Restoration of Justice – Voice of the Nation: the Lord is Our Truth
Nestan Kirtadze, a former Labor Party member
Avtandil Margiani, who served as Communist Party of Georgia first secretary in the late 1980s and under then-President Eduard Shevardnadze as deputy premier in the late 1990s
Kartlos Gharibashvili, who ran in the 1991, 1995, 2000, and 2004 presidential ballots. He polled less than 1 percent in 2004
Tamaz Bibiluri, who registered for the 2008 election but then withdrew
Former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili was denied registration on the grounds that she holds dual Georgian and French citizenship.
The ballot is widely perceived as a three-way race between Margvelashvili, Bakradze, and Burjanadze.
But a recent poll
conducted on behalf of the U.S. National Democratic Institute indicates that none of those three would poll the 50 percent plus one vote required for a first-round victory.
Consequently, many analysts predict a run-off, although there is no consensus on which two candidates will qualify for the second round of voting.
According to the NDI-sponsored opinion poll, Margvelashvili, whom Ivanishvili selected in May as Georgian Dream's candidate, scored the highest approval rating with 39 percent, up from 29 percent
Bakradze ranked second with 18 percent followed by Burjanadze with just 7 percent. A total 38 percent of those asked declined to reveal a preference.
But some analysts say that Burjanadze's approval rating is far higher, up to 33 percent, and that in rural areas Georgian Dream activists en masse are transferring their support to her.
Sociologist Ramaz Siqvarelidze was quoted as telling journalists that Burjanadze's popularity is no surprise. He characterized her as an experienced politician who appeals to voters
disenchanted both with Saakashvili's ENM and KO.
Both Margvelashvili and Ivanishvili remain supremely confident nonetheless that Margvelashvili will score a convincing victory.
Ivanishvili predicted last week
that in the event of high voter turnout Margevlashvili will garner up 65 percent of the vote.
Margvelashvili himself has said that
, in the event of a second round runoff, he will not participate. That would mean that his rival would be declared the winner by default. Parliament speaker David Usupashvili, however, appears less certain
: he described Margvelashvili's assertion as "metaphorical,” and not to be taken literally.
There is therefore a genuine possibility that the current French-style "cohabitation," with the president and prime minister representing different political parties, will continue after the election.
But even if it does not, Georgia's future political path will be shaped primarily by the new prime minister.
Ivanishvili said on September 25 that, after monitoring the performance of three people, he has decided on his preferred successor
, but he declined to identify him.
Possible successors include Defense Minister Irakli Alasania and Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. Usupashvili's name has been mentioned, but he has denied
he is in the running.
As for outgoing President Saakashvili, he has said repeatedly that he has no intention of retiring from politics.
In early October, Saakashvili was reelected ENM chairman at a congress during which he told delegates he is confident
of the party's eventual return to power.