With opinion polls suggesting no party will win a clear majority, the political giants behind Georgia's two leading political forces have taken center stage to talk up their respective parties' chances in this weekend's national elections.
To compensate for their lack of popular support, the former ruling United National Movement and the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia grouping that toppled it in 2012 have sought not so much to persuade voters of their own potential as to pillory the other and accuse it of trying to destabilize the country.
"Each of the two parties makes of the other a symbol of the enemy, so that voters see only black and white," Georgian Republican Party lawmaker Vakhtang Khmaladze said in the run-up to the October 8 vote.
The strategy might be unexceptional if it were not for the fact that neither of the two men -- billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili for Georgian Dream and self-exiled ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili for the United National Movement -- holds formal office in the star-crossed Caucasus country or is even seeking reelection.
The result has been an ongoing war of words between the two bitter rivals with unclear consequences after the voting for Georgia's 5 million people, who in a little over a decade have endured a post-Soviet revolution, a devastating lightning war that cemented the government's loss of control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and deep political divisions that appear to be alienating many voters.
The two men apparently regard each other as the embodiment of evil, a perception reflected in their increasingly vitriolic campaign rhetoric. Each has argued that a victory for the other's party would bring disaster on the country and its people.
With just days to go before the election, almost one-third of Georgia's 3.5 million eligible voters were reportedly still undecided, and none of the 27 parties and six electoral blocs appeared likely to win a clear majority.
Saakashvili, who is currently the governor of Odesa in Ukraine, ruled Georgia along with his center-right United National Movement for nine years after the so-called Rose Revolution of November 2003 toppled the administration of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister. The Georgian government has requested that Ukraine extradite Saakashvili to face fraud and abuse-of-office charges, and Tbilisi revoked Saakashvili's citizenship late in 2015 in what the former president called a "political decision" that forced his United National Movement to name a new party leader.
Wealthy philanthropist Ivanishvili, who founded the fledgling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia that came to power in 2012, served as prime minister for nearly a year before handing over to a party colleague in 2013. He is widely believed to continue to dictate -- or at least influence -- government policy from behind the scenes.
Saakashvili has branded Ivanishvili, who made much of his fortune in Russia, "a Russian oligarch" and "Putin's errand boy," a reference to Russia's president, implying that a victory for Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia would inevitably lead to Georgia's gravitation into Russia's geopolitical orbit (despite an Association Agreement with the European Union signed in June 2014 by the current leadership).
For his part, Ivanishvili has warned of a resumption of gratuitous violence and legal harassment allegedly perpetrated by Georgia's law enforcement agencies under Saakashvili.
Georgian Dream has proven unable to deliver on its 2012 campaign promises to raise incomes and living standards and reduce unemployment. And the upbeat campaign speeches of current Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who consistently advocates consensus and constructive cooperation for the benefit of the entire population, have been drowned out by the exchange of mutual recriminations between other leading Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia members and the United National Movement.
Calls for restraint have fallen on deaf ears. Only four parties -- the pro-Western Republican Party and Free Democrats, the center-right Democratic Movement-United Georgia party headed by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, and the populist, anti-Western Alliance of Patriots -- signed onto a formal memorandum proposed by Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia pledging not to deliberately hinder or obstruct each other's campaigning.
The recent leak of audio footage in which speakers whose voices resemble those of Saakashvili and other senior United National Movement members discuss the logistics of an extended public protest in the event of an election defeat only served to exacerbate suspicions that Saakashvili will stop at nothing to engineer his return to power.
Speaking to a campaign rally in Tbilisi on October 5 via video link, Saakashvili declared that his party's victory was assured and that he would return to Georgia in three days' time to witness the end of Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia misrule. Attendance at that rally was estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000 people, compared with the 50,000-100,000 who protested for days on end in the capital in November 2007 against the Saakashvili regime. Other speakers included Givi Targamadze, a member of the outgoing parliament who was slightly injured the previous day when a bomb exploded in his car.
Recent opinion polls nonetheless suggest the outcome of the ballot remains unclear. The United National Movement's (ENM) rating is variously estimated between 13 and 16 percent, compared with between 33 and around 41 percent for Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia. The executive secretary of Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, Irakli Kobakhidze, has dismissed out of hand the findings of a poll conducted by the pro-ENM TV station Rustavi-2 that estimated support for the United National Movement at 30 percent.
Opinions differ as to which other political forces might also win seats in parliament. Of the 150 lawmakers, 73 are elected in single-mandate constituencies, of which Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia is expected to win most -- although runoffs may be needed in many cases if no candidate wins 50 percent. (The number of registered candidates in individual single-mandate constituencies ranges from seven to 16.) The remaining 77 mandates are distributed proportionally among those parties that garner at least 5 percent of the vote.
The perceived dark horse of the campaign is the bloc comprising the State for the People party, founded earlier this year by opera singer Paata Burchuladze, together with two smaller parties. (A third allied party, New Political Center-Pine Cone [Girchi], withdrew from the ballot last week after an acrimonious exchange in which its leader, a former United National Movement lawmaker, accused Burchuladze of demanding an unspecified sum of money for listing Girchi representatives among candidates in the proportional part of the race.)
Other parties that like Burchuladze's bloc currently appear to enjoy less than 5 percent backing but which analysts believe might still make it into parliament are the Alliance of Patriots and the Free Democrats headed by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.