Georgia may be on the brink of being the first Caucasus nation to elect a female president in balloting this weekend to succeed incumbent Giorgi Margvelashvili, who isn’t seeking a second term.
French-born former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, 66, is among a record 25 candidates in a bruising race notable more for its dirty tricks and mudslinging than debate on policy.
The country’s voters began casting ballots as polling stations opened at 8 a.m. local time on October 28. They are scheduled to close at 8 p.m.
Some 3.5 million are eligible to cast ballots in the election, which is being monitored by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Zurabishvili, who is running as an independent even though she has the backing of the ruling Georgian Dream party headed by former Prime Minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has faced personal attacks over her background and been branded a traitor for saying a brief war with Russia over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 occurred because “we yielded to Russia's provocation.”
The campaign has also been marked by the release of several secretly recorded audiotapes alleging bribery among state officials, a murder plot implicating former President Mikheil Saakashvili, and claims of witness tampering and torture in politically charged cases.
“If there is a sufficient mobilization of Georgian Dream supporters, Salome Zurabishvili should score a first-round victory,” Ivanishvili said.
Independent opinion polls are hard to come by in Georgia, but party-backed surveys suggest the main challengers are Zurabishvili, Grigol Vashadze, also a former foreign minister who is running for the opposition United National Movement (UNM), and former parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze, nominated by the opposition European Georgia party.
The first-round winner needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff between the top two candidates. If Zurabishvili doesn’t clinch a majority of votes in the first round, Ivanishvili said “there is no doubt” she will win a runoff.
Georgia, which is strategically important for the West and is crisscrossed with pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe, has pushed hard for greater political and economic integration with the European Union and other Western structures.
But the former Soviet republic is also struggling to recover from a decline in exports and a plunge in the currencies of its main trading partners, which have depressed economic growth in recent years.
While the president ensures adherence to the constitution by state bodies, the position's crucial function lies in foreign policy as the main negotiator of international treaties and accords. The president also appoints ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives.
For a country at a crossroads in a region known for rampant corruption, some analysts fear the dominance of Ivanishvili behind the scenes could hinder Georgia’s reputation as a bastion of progress and reforms.
“For many years, Georgia has been one of the top performing countries in its region on anticorruption and good governance,” while “the recent backsliding on democratic governance is extremely troubling,” says Transparency International chairwoman Delia Ferreira Rubio.
“It would be a great shame if Georgia’s progress towards improved rule of law would turn instead towards kleptocracy and impunity for corruption,” she added.
The presidential election, Georgia's seventh since 1991, will be the last in which the head of state will be elected by direct ballot.
A 2017 constitutional amendment takes effect after the vote that will see subsequent presidents elected by a 300-member College of Electors, comprising parliamentarians and local and regional political representatives.
If Zurabishvili does emerge as the victor in the vote, she would become the first woman outside the Baltics to be elected head of state in a post-Soviet republic.
Nino Burjanadze was twice thrust into the role of president, once just after the Rose Revolution and again when Saakashvili stepped down in late 2007 to call early presidential elections following a political crisis over a violent crackdown on opposition protesters. Burjanadze was parliamentary speaker at the time.