At one level, the election is a naked struggle for power in which President Mikheil Saakashvili’s embattled United National Movement (ENM) has resorted to increasingly desperate measures to neutralize the threat posed by the opposition Georgian Dream bloc headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili.
But it is also, as Thomas de Waal pointed out in a recent interview, a referendum on the relative credentials and credibility of Ivanishvili and the ENM.
According to de Waal the poll also represents an opportunity for Georgians to demonstrate their commitment to democratization. He maintains that it offers them a chance to break free from the lingering Soviet-era mindset that opts to play safe by voting for the ruling party.
If this happens, it could bring about Georgia’s first-ever post-Soviet peaceful and constitutional transition of power.
A total of 14 parties and two blocs have registered to compete for 150 parliamentary mandates (77 under the proportional party-list system and 73 in single-mandate constituencies ).
Three opposition parties – United Georgia, Georgia’s Path, and the Greens – opted not to run against Georgian Dream.
The general consensus among observers is that, apart from the ENM and Georgian Dream, only the Christian Democrats bloc and possibly the New Rightists and the populist Labor Party stand a chance of winning parliamentary representation.
For the first time since Saakashvili’s advent to power as a result of the November 2003 Rose Revolution, and despite the passage last year of a new election law that tips the odds in its favor, the ENM is facing the prospect of forfeiting power.
That possibility is all the more alarming in light of the passage in 2010 of a new constitution that transfers many of the presidential prerogatives to the prime minister, effectively reducing the president to a figurehead.
Consequently, the party that controls parliament gets to appoint the country’s most powerful official.
Saakashvili’s second and final term expires in January 2013. It is not yet known who the ENM will select as its candidate in the ballot for his successor, or indeed in what capacity Saakashvili intends to continue his participation in politics.
Even before campaigning officially began, the authorities sought ways to minimize the influence of Ivanishvili, who entered national politics less than a year ago, affirming his intention to win this year’s election and become prime minister.
They slapped multi-million dollar fines on Georgian Dream for imputed violations of legislation on party funding, a move that led a visiting Parliamentary Assembly delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to deplore what it termed the “selective” imposition of “disproportionate” and “harsh” penalties “without clear or transparent guidelines.”
The authorities also confiscated thousands of satellite dishes imported by the Maestro TV channel on the grounds that Maestro planned to distribute them free-of-charge as part of a clandestine deal with companies Ivanishvili owns in what the Prosecutor-General’s office termed an attempt at vote-buying.
The NGO This Affects You Too responded with a strongly-worded statement that characterized the reprisals against Georgian Dream as “unprecedented in their intensity and scale” and accused the ENM of showing no interest in creating a “level playing field” for parties participating in the election.
EU, OSCE Concerns
Nonetheless, Saakashvili continued to affirm that the election will be “the freest and most transparent in Georgia’s post-independence history.”
Predictably, the election campaign has been, according to the OSCE, increasingly “polarized,” “confrontational and rough,” with the focus at times “on the advantages of incumbency, on the one hand, and private financial resources, on the other, rather than on concrete political platforms.”
The European Union has expressed similar concern, stressing that “elections should be first of all about political programs and ideas.”
The ideological component of the campaign has been largely confined to the ENM’s implausible portrayal of Georgian Dream as Russian-funded and Moscow’s stalking horse (even though its campaign program lists NATO and EU membership as strategic objectives).
A poll conducted in August by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) registered 37 percent support for the ENM, and 12 percent for Georgian Dream, and 3 percent for the Christian Democratic Movement (CDM). Twenty-one percent of respondents were unwilling to reveal who they would vote for, and a further 22 percent were undecided.
To what extent last week’s revelations, apparently orchestrated by Georgian Dream, of widespread abuse and torture in Georgian prisons have changed that ratio is an open question.
The authorities have hit back, implicating former Minister for Conflict Resolution Goga Khaindrava in dubious ties with Georgian criminal groups operating in France and airing video clips showing prominent members of Georgian Dream badmouthing each other or apparently discussing how to buy votes.
Khaindrava had publicly declared that the prison abuse videos herald the demise of the ENM as a political force.
Citing the NDI’s figure of 43 percent of respondents whose preference remains unclear, de Waal predicted that Georgian Dream would garner 45 percent of the party list vote, the ENM 40 percent, and the CDM 10 percent.
Given the advantages the authorities enjoy in single-mandate constituencies, the ENM could thus end up with upwards of 80 mandates. Compared with their present 119, this would be a loss of one third. On the other hand, only 40 percent of parliamentarians are required to endorse the proposed candidate for prime minister.
Ivanishvili told a Georgian journalist in early August that his worst case scenario would be to win 40 percent of the 150 seats, and he fully anticipates winning between two-thirds and three-quarters.
In an editorial published in the “Wall Street Journal,” he was more cautious, saying Georgian Dream is “in a dead heat with the government.”
How Ivanishvili -- and his supporters -- would react in the event that the official results give them less than 40 percent of the parliamentary mandates is not clear.
Peaceful protests -- taking to the streets en masse -- are unlikely to have any effect; violence would play into the hands of the ENM insofar as Saakashvili would probably conflate it with a Russian conspiracy to overthrow the legitimately elected parliament.
Ivanishvili’s own political future in the event of defeat is unclear. He is not running for election, having been stripped of his Georgian citizenship last October and publicly spurned the constitutional loophole created to enable citizens of EU member states who have lived in Georgia for 10 years to stand for public office.
It is similarly uncertain whether and for how long the Georgian Dream coalition could survive as a united minority parliament faction.
Georgian Dream's six members -- Democratic Georgia, the Conservative Party, the Republican Party, Industry Will Save Georgia, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, and the National Forum -- have diverging ideologies and priorities that they have set aside for tactical reasons with the single overriding objective of bringing about regime change.