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Georgia’s Ruling Coalition Unveils Dark Horse Presidential Candidate

Georgian Education and Science Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili announced on May 11 that his Georgian Dream (KO) coalition has chosen as its candidate for the October presidential election Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili. A virtual unknown, Margvelashvili, 43, does not belong to either of the two parties aligned in the coalition. Meanwhile, incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM), which ceded power following the October 2012 parliamentary election, plans to select its presidential candidate by means of U.S.-style primaries by the end of this month.

Margvelashvili studied philosophy at Tbilisi State University and served twice, from 2000-06 and 2010-12, as rector of the U.S.-funded Georgian Institute for Public Affairs. Ivanishvili appointed him education minister last fall and deputy premier in January.

Ivanishvili characterized Margvelashvili as “very creative,” an experienced manager, a good analyst and team-player, and “unique in crisis situations.” The popular perception of Margvelashvili is somewhat different, however: In a March public-opinion survey commissioned by the National Democratic Institute his popularity rating was just 29 percent, far lower than Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania or Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze.

Margvelashvili has also been criticized for the controversial withdrawal (subsequently retracted) of accreditation for the Agrarian University and for announcing the distribution of school textbooks free-of-charge, a decision protested by publishers who stand to lose out financially as a result.

Ivanishvili said the choice of Margvelashvili as presidential candidate was unanimous and his candidacy was the only one considered. That statement lacks conviction insofar as the meeting to select a candidate reportedly lasted between 1 1/2 and two hours. In addition, some journalists have suggested the purpose of French-born former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili’s arrival in Tbilisi on May 11 was to discuss her possible candidacy with Ivanishvili. Zourabichvili said on May 12 that she is considering running as an independent candidate.

Last fall, Ivanishvili had named as a possible KO presidential candidate Vakhtang Khmaladze, a respected legal expert and one of the authors of Georgia’s 1990 and 1995 constitutions. Khmaladze represents the Republican party, one of the two GD members, in parliament. Defense Minister Alasania was also considered a potential candidate, but he is rumored to have incurred Ivanishvili’s displeasure by telling members of his Free Democrats party that he aspired to the presidential nomination. Alasania has affirmed his unequivocal support for Margvelashvili and predicts he will win.

Irrespective of the merits of KO’s candidate, most analysts believe that the ENM is so discredited that it stands no chance of victory. Merab Pachulia, who heads the GORBI pollster, told the Russian daily “Kommersant” the ENM could even place third to former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze if Burjanadze waged a convincing campaign. Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement--United Georgia has reportedly said it will propose her as its candidate.

Shalva Natelashvili, chairman of the extraparliamentary Labor party, announced in late March that he plans to participate in the October presidential ballot. Natelashvili placed fourth in the January 2008 presidential ballot with 6.49 percent of the vote.
As for the ENM, it has no clear front-runner. (Saakashvili is barred by the constitution from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms.) Until last month, many analysts had considered former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili the most likely choice. Saakashvili named Merabishvili ENM head in the wake of the party’s election defeat last fall, tasking him with transforming it into a more effective and appealing political force capable of returning to power.

Merabishvili conceded in February that there was a “high possibility” that the ENM would lose the October presidential ballot. At the same time, he contributed to the speculation he would be its presidential nominee, saying in early April that an ENM rally scheduled for April 19 would yield “surprises” and “a drastic change” in the political situation. Just days before that rally, however, Saakashvili announced that the ENM’s presidential candidate will be selected in primaries in late May.

Merabishvili confirmed on May 9 that the party would hold primaries but declined to say whether he would seek nomination. Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava said the same day he considers former Tbilisi Mayor David Bakradze the most worthy candidate from the ENM. Ugulava had himself been considered for several years as a possible successor to Saakashvili, but he made clear in March he would not run. In addition to Bakradze, former Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze has said he will seek the ENM nomination.

It is not clear whether damaging allegations posted on his Facebook page by former senior Interior Minister Dato Akhalaya may have demolished Merabaishvili’s presidential chances. Akhalaya claimed Merabishvili was behind the recruitment of the Chechen fighters who were killed in eastern Georgia in August in circumstances that remain unclear. He also suggested that Merabishvili leaked video footage in September of the abuse of prisoners at a Tbilisi jail with the explicit intention of discrediting Akhalaya’s brother Bacho, who had succeeded Merabishvili as interior minister.

Political analyst Ramaz Saqvarelidze has suggested that the ENM may disassociate itself from Merabishvili in the same way it has done so from Bacho Akhalaya, who is currently on trial on charges of exceeding his authority by engaging in the torture of prisoners. Saakashvili, however, rejected Akhalaya’s allegations against Merabishvili as “unserious” and categorically denied any rifts or infighting within the ENM.

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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