Presidential Election in Georgia Gearing Up

On October 31, Georgians will go to the polls to select the country’s new president.  Whichever candidate is chosen, the election will mark a crucial turning point in Georgia’s history.  For the first time in ten years, Mikheil Saakashvili will not be at the controls of the Georgian democratic experiment that he initiated.  Saakashvili is term-limited and cannot run.  Georgians will instead choose a new leader whose task it will be to try to unite political factions more interested in destroying each other than governing.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition announced in May that its presidential candidate would be education minister Giorgi Margvelashvili.  A philosopher educated in Tbilisi and former two-time head of the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs, Margvelashvili’s nomination was a surprise. Several more high-profile cabinet ministers were know to be angling for the nod, including the justice, defense, and foreign ministers.  Ivanishvili insists that his education minister is the best candidate, however, and said recently that he was the only nominee Georgian Dream considered.  This despite the fact that Margvelashvili is not a member of any of the parties that make up the coalition.

The only known qualification for the presidency Margvelashvili possesses is Ivanishvili’s blessing.  The entire nomination process reportedly consisted of one hour-and-a-half meeting in the Prime Minister’s office.  The surprise decision may be Ivanishvili’s way of taking a page out of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s playbook – nominating a weak caretaker for president who can be counted on to stay out of the way while the Prime Minister implements his agenda largely unchallenged.

The second leading candidate for the presidency is Nino Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament and the leader of the Democratic Movement party.  Burjanadze, who has twice served an interim head of state during political transitions in the Saakashvili era, holds a doctorate of law from Moscow State University and served as a professor of law in Tbilisi before being elected to parliament.  As speaker during the Rose Revolution overthrow of former president Eduard Shevardnadze, Burjanadze was instrumental in maintaining stability in the run up to new elections.  Saakashvili subsequently defeated Burjanadze at the polls.

Once allies, by 2008 Burjanadze and Saakashvili had gone their separate ways.  In the wake of the South Ossetia war with Russia, Burjanadze announced the formation of the Democratic Movement, positioning her new party in complete opposition to Saakashvili’s United National Movement.  In 2011, she led mass protests calling for Saakashvili’s resignation.  The Interior Ministry used force to put down the rallies, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and roughing up opposition journalists.  Burjanadze now says that if elected president, her first acts in office would be to arrest Saakashvili and launch an investigation into the United National Movement as a “criminal organization.”

Last among the major parties is Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which has yet to announce its candidate for the presidency. Besieged by Ivanishvili’s relentless campaign to discredit Saakashvili and anyone associated with him, the party is disorganized and seemingly at odds with itself.  It was to hold primary elections to choose a candidate, which it later cancelled only to rescind the cancellation.  The expected winner of the primary is also a former parliament speaker, Davit Bakradze, who is seen as somewhat of a moderate and a deal maker.

The trouble for Bakradze is his party has been so thoroughly vilified by Ivanishvili’s campaign that he stands little chance of winning.  Opinion polls show that only around 1 in 10 Georgians would vote for the United National Movement’s candidate, whomever it turns out to be.

The election is widely expected to go into a runoff between Burjanadze and the relative unknown Margvelashvili.  While Burjanadze projects to be more independent minded in office than Margvelashvili would be, her call for Saakashvili’s arrest is likely music to Ivanishvili’s ears. As long as Georgia’s leadership is more concerned with settling scores than governing, Georgia’s decade of democratic progress is in jeopardy. If the leading candidates are any indication, Georgia’s political strife is going to get worse before – if – it gets better.