Georgians have begun voting in an election that still looked wide open to decide whether to stick with the ruling Georgian Dream party or give controversial ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s allies a second chance to rule the post-Soviet Caucasus country.
Some 3.5 million eligible voters are faced with nearly three dozen parties and blocs vying to fill the unicameral parliament's 150 seats through a mix of party lists and single-seat constituencies in the October 8 voting.
"These elections are a very important step forward toward reinforcing Georgia's image as a democratic European state," Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili told journalists after casting his ballot.
Officials said turnout by noon local time was a mere 20 percent.
The elections are effectively a showdown between Georgian Dream and Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM).
And while the center-left Georgian Dream is tipped to garner the most votes, surveys suggested that many voters were still undecided, faced with a sagging economy, rising prices, and what critics say are unfulfilled promises from Kvirikashvili's government.
“We don't have reliable opinion polls and [therefore] the two main parties are both claiming that they will get a majority in this election, and that could be problematic,” Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe and a Caucasus specialist, told RFE/RL.
The voter indecision also attests to Georgia's refractory party landscape, where personal animosities and the ad hominem tactics of many leading politicians lead to a blurring of political ideologies.
Despite dissatisfaction with the six-party ruling coalition over the economy, de Waal said it’s unlikely the United National Movement will be able to capitalize and win the elections.
Georgian Dream also has a big advantage in the 73 races for parliamentary slots that will be decided in single-seat constituencies, "particularly out in the regions where...[Georgian Dream candidates] have the local authorities behind them and the population [there] is much more likely to vote for the current ruling party,” de Waal said.
Although the United National Movement has consistently placed second in opinion polls, Saakashvili has been predicting victory from his self-exile in nearby Ukraine, where he governs the Odesa region.
"The experiment of a Russian oligarch, who set us up against each other, will finally be over in three days," Saakashvili said via video from the city of Odesa on October 5 to a crowd of some 25,000 supporters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Saakashvili -- who is wanted in Georgia on charges of exceeding presidential authority, embezzlement, corruption, and brutality that he says are politically motivated -- was referring to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire tycoon-cum-prime minister who founded Georgian Dream to topple Saakashvili's allies in the 2012 elections and is still widely seen as pulling the party strings.
Saakashvili, who was president from 2004 until 2013, is a divisive figure who is almost equally beloved and reviled in the country.
“[The United National Movement has] a problem in the sense that their big charismatic leader, their twice-elected president and most talented politician, is Saakashvili," said de Waal, "He is simultaneously their kind of biggest asset and their biggest minus."
Saakashvili has vowed to return to Georgia, which has stripped him of his citizenship, if the United National Movement wins the elections.
United National Movement party leader David Bakradze said on October 5 that “Saakashvili will certainly have a political future in Georgian politics.”
But Interior Minister Giorgi Mgebrishvili has pledged to arrest Saakashvili if he returns to Georgia, and Ivanishvili -- who has no formal role in the government -- said last week that “a very good prison cell is waiting for [Saakashvili] at home.”
“I think Saakashvili's friends in Ukraine and the West will be advising him not to go back,” de Waal said.
If Georgia Dream wins less than a majority in the elections, it is likely to have several potential coalition partners to choose from, including the new State For The People bloc, set up by well-known Georgian opera singer Paata Burchuladze.
Reportedly backed by wealthy business interests, little is known about the charismatic Burchuladze’s political views, and rumors abound that he has a secret supporter who is using the bloc to chip away at support for one of the main parties. Success for State For The People could come at the expense of former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania’s pro-Western Free Democrats or the Republican Party of Georgia.
The pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots of Georgia party has risen in popularity recently, and its steadfast support for the Georgian Orthodox Church and conservative values are popular among nationalists.
The United Democratic Movement of former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze has polled around the 5 percent threshold needed to get into parliament. But Burjanadze’s calls for a cozy relationship with Moscow are likely to put off some Georgians for whom decades of Soviet political and cultural hegemony and a quick but deadly war against Russia in 2008 are still fresh in their minds.
Analyst de Waal said Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy and desire to join NATO and the European Union are unlikely to be significantly affected by these elections.
“I think maybe there's not such great love for the West in Georgia at the moment, but I think it's the only game in town,” he said. “Russia really offers nothing [to Georgia].”
De Waal said a move by the EU -- just days before the elections -- on visa liberalization for Georgia “is a positive [thing]” and the country’s “pro-European movement vector will continue, maybe in a slightly more pragmatic way [after the elections].”
He added that a “peaceful” vote is of great importance and Georgia needs to deliver a “normal European-style election...in which there are no obvious, flagrant irregularities.”
An explosion on October 5 under the car of United National Movement lawmaker Givi Targamadze, an associate of Saakashvili who was unhurt by the blast, has raised security concerns, as have reports of a foiled terror plot on a gas pipeline and authorities' publicly expressed suspicions that a postelection coup might be in the planning.