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Split Ticket? Noncandidate Looms Large In Georgia's Presidential Runoff

Bidzina Ivanishvili (left) and Salome Zurabishvili -- which one is running for president, again?

Georgia's billionaire former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, isn't one of the two candidates in a presidential runoff vote this week. But you wouldn't know that from the wave of billboards that have flooded the country.

His Georgian Dream party has backed Salome Zurabishvili, a 66-year-old former foreign minister who is running as an independent.

But with her support foundering and opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze, 60, making a strong showing in opinion polls, Ivanishvili's face has replaced Zurabishvili's in ads ahead of the November 28 vote.

The move has led some to question the French-born Zurabishvili's independence, with analysts speculating that even though presidential powers have been watered down, Ivanishvili is likely trying to keep his party's dominance over the country's levers of power.

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.

Both candidates espouse a pro-European foreign policy looking to deepen ties with Western structures such as NATO and the European Union.

But Vashadze has accused Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream's government of meddling in the judiciary and fostering corruption while failing to address poverty in the Caucasus state.

Testing Georgian Dream

By backing Zurabishvili, Georgian Dream has made the vote a test of its support.

A poll conducted by U.S.-based Edison Research for private television station Rustavi-2 from November 12-18 showed Vashadze with a four-point lead over Zurabishvili in the second round. That compares with first-round results that put Zurabishvili in first place with 39 percent against 38 percent for Vashadze.

Grigol Vashadze (center) and his supporters react after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the presidential election on October 28.
Grigol Vashadze (center) and his supporters react after the announcement of the first exit poll results in the presidential election on October 28.

"From the new billboards, it is obvious that Salome Zurabishvili's political portrayal hasn't worked," sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili tells RFE/RL. "New billboards can't change those who don't like Salome Zurabishvili's candidacy specifically. But it may also have another effect: It may anger some who see it as an attempt by the government to overthrow the presidential institution."

Georgian Dream has explained the move by saying it has never hidden its support for Zurabishvili, who has complimented the strategy, and that there is nothing wrong with the head of the party or other leading officials being in its advertisements.

It also points out that Zurabishvili still appears in some posters and billboards.

Negative Campaigning

This election has been an especially bruising one, even by Georgia's standards, with the release of secretly recorded audio recordings feeding allegations of corruption and murder plots overshadowing the country's economic and social woes.

So while the move to change the focus of the campaign may anger some, it appears to have lightened the mood for others.

Memes replacing Ivanishvili with pictures of his pet zebras, the ancient trees he has purchased and moved to his own private arboretum, and even Vincent Vega, John Travolta's character in the movie Pulp Fiction, have raced through the Internet during the two-week runoff campaign.

In one post, a picture of a Georgian identity card has been doctored to show all of the written details for Zurabishvili next to a picture of Ivanishvili.

Several others have altered Ivanishvili's picture to include earrings, a satirical nod to Zurabishvili's candidacy being taken over by men.

A recent news talk show on Rustavi-2 went so far as to show an empty suit that resembled one Zurabishvili had worn, and then have an Ivanishvili impersonator dress up in the outfit.

"Zurabishvili basically exhausted her base in the first round of elections, and it appears she is not able to attract more voters," political analyst and constitutionalist Vakhtang Dzabiradze says. "Georgian Dream instead is now trying to unite people against the United National Movement by replacing the billboards."

The United National Movement, founded by former two-term President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been named by the subsequent administration in charges that he calls politically motivated, has backed Vashadze.

One person who is not laughing at the move is Baia Pataraia, a lawyer who runs the Georgian women's rights organization Union Sapari.

She sees the replacement of Zurabishvili in the campaign ads as "insulting to all women," including the candidate, and an affirmation of the attitude in Georgia that women cannot succeed in the country without the help of males.

Salome Zurabishvili billboards showing political allies instead of the candidate.
Salome Zurabishvili billboards showing political allies instead of the candidate.

Another prong in the campaign has been to characterize leading opposition figures as evil and urging voters to say "No to the Nazis!"

"Georgian Dream is crossing the line from negative campaigning to outright incitement," Christina Pushaw, a Washington-based political consultant and adviser to the opposition, tells RFE/RL.