Forget the economy, foreign policy, NATO membership, even the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. With Georgia's October 28 presidential election nearing, allegations of corruption, murder plots, and sex have become the last-minute focus of the campaign.
In a country that is no stranger to raucous election campaigns and audio dumps, a war of secretly recorded words has gained momentum since the first of several tapes uncovering alleged official wrongdoing was leaked to the public in September, overshadowing pressing economic and policy concerns while highlighting corruption for Georgia's 3.5 million voters.
Lost in the shuffle has been the battle for the presidency between French-born Salome Zurabishvili, an independent former foreign minister who is backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party; Grigol Vashadze, also a former foreign minister who is running for the opposition United National Movement (ENM); and former parliamentary speaker Davit Bakradze, nominated by the opposition European Georgia party.
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.
In the last direct presidential vote before a new system of indirect voting takes effect, parties are sparing no effort in discrediting each other, a familiar tactic in the country's political arena.
"The release of the tapes confirms that none of the political parties are capable of arguing about problems and challenges facing the country," Elene Melikishvili of Kings College told RFE/RL.
"The key issues that Georgia has to tackle are the lack of institutional development, particularly the issues related to the rule of law, economic inequality, and weak political pluralism. The rule of law is of the utmost importance because it affects all aspects of life. And interestingly the political parties are unable to offer viable and workable plans that could improve the situation."
A mostly uneventful campaign roared to life in September with the release of a succession of audiotapes, aired by Rustavi-2, a national broadcaster seen as leaning toward the opposition.
One of the recordings was an alleged phone call between former Sports Minister Levan Kipiani and the owner of Iberia TV, Zaza Okuashvili, over potential help for a fee from a person close to former Prime Minister and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Invanishvili in dealing with the station's financial difficulties.
Since then, secret recordings alleging corruption were aired of Mirza Subeliani, a midlevel bureaucrat whose teenage son was involved in a street fight that left two boys dead from stab wounds. While Subeliani's son was implicated but never charged in connection with the incident*, Subeliani himself was detained on charges of failing to report a crime, which some say was a move to pacify thousands of Georgians who had protested the court decision, claiming government interference in the case.
In a recording broadcast on Rustavi-2 television, Subeliani’s statements appeared to confirm he was taking the fall surrounding the case to ease mounting tensions on the streets of Tbilisi.
He also alleged he had helped in the prosecution of some former ruling party officials through witness tampering, including torture, that had the implicit approval of higher state leaders.
That has led to other "leaks," including one of an alleged recording from the prosecutor's office claiming former President Mikheil Saakashvili personally sanctioned the killing of Georgian billionaire and failed presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died amid suspicious circumstances 10 years ago at his home near London.
"The recordings that were publicized by Rustavi-2 are a major problem for the country," according to Sulkhan Saladze, the head of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association. "Now it is important to know what the investigation is going to do, and, if the records are authentic, then comes the question of responsibility for specific individuals. It can be said that this is a test for the authorities."
The recordings are an attempt to discredit the electoral process through attacks and insults on opposition politicians, Civil.ge* and other local media quoted Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze as saying.
“They should not have any illusions about that; the public understands full well where the line lies between the reality and [the opposition's] mysticism,” Civil.ge quoted Bakhtadze as saying.
The former Soviet republic is recovering from a decline in exports and a plunge in the currencies of its main trading partners, which have depressed economic growth in recent years.
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.
So it comes as no surprise that Western diplomats have taken note of the campaign.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Caucasus and Eastern Europe George Kent said at a press conference in Tbilisi on October 12 that Georgia "must find a healthy balance” in tensions between the public and elected officials.
"We understand that elections in every country, including our own, are often times the moments of heated rhetoric, but we do hope that the dialogue between Georgians can remain civil and in particular the members of civil society are not attacked for their rights as citizens to express their views," Kent said.
Independent opinion polls are hard to come by in Georgia, and predictions are further complicated by a field of 25 presidential candidates.
A survey released by Georgian Dream on October 19, conducted in conjunction with Psycho Project, a Tbilisi-based polling and marketing company, identified Zurabishvili as the clear leader with 27 percent support. Vashadze and Bakradze were said to be running second and third with 10 percent and 9 percent respectively.
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.
*CORRECTION: This story has been amended to clarify sourcing and attribute reporting to Civil.ge. It also corrects the text to state that the teenage son of Mirza Subeliani was never charged in connection with the fatal street fight. We regret any errors.