Georgians vote on Saturday (31 October) in tightly contested parliamentary elections pitting an unlikely union of opposition parties against the increasingly unpopular ruling party led by the country’s richest man.
Mountainous Georgia on the Black Sea is seen as a rare example of a democracy among ex-Soviet countries. But elections in the country of nearly four million people regularly spark mass protests, with only one orderly transition of power in a parliamentary vote in 2012.
Two larger-than-life personalities dominate politics in the tiny Caucasus country, the flamboyant former president Mikheil Saakashvili who is in exile and billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
In an unprecedented show of unity among the fragmented opposition, Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and smaller opposition groups have joined forces to challenge the ruling Georgian Dream party chaired by Ivanishvili.
The billionaire’s party has been in power since 2012 and his lavish mansion is nestled on a forested mountain that overlooks the capital Tbilisi.
Critics accuse Ivanishvili — who is widely seen to be calling the shots in Georgia — of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system where private interests preside over politics.
“State institutions, law-enforcement bodies, the prosecutor’s office, the courts — nothing works properly,” Murtaz Beridze, a 67-year-old historian told AFP.
“Everything is ruled by that person living there on the mountain,” he told AFP.
‘Unlimited’ financial resources
Nearly all of Georgia’s opposition parties, including Saakashvili’s UNM, held talks on forming a coalition government if they are elected.
Both the ruling party and the opposition have said they are sure to win, but analysts believe the outcome is uncertain, with the opposition holding only a narrow lead.
What’s more, “Georgian Dream is unchecked in its use of unlimited administrative and financial resources against them,” analyst Gia Nodia told AFP.
Due to Georgia’s complex election rules the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.
Georgian Dream has seen its popularity plummet over its handling of the economy and a perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.
“An oligarch who owns some 40% of Georgia’s national wealth has appropriated the country and is ruling it as his fiefdom,” Saakashvili told AFP in an interview.
Despite the dominance of Georgian Dream and the UNM, electoral laws introduced this year mean smaller groups have a better chance of securing seats, with the threshold for representation at just one percent.
Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia of Georgian Dream said the new laws meant Saturday’s vote was a “milestone” that would result in “a more pluralistic parliament”.
He was confident in a win for his party that would bring his country closer to the European Union and NATO.
‘Violence and intimidation’
Yet Georgia’s bid to join the Western military alliance has angered Moscow and the confrontation culminated in a brief war over the Kremlin-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008.
After the war, which saw Georgia’s small military routed in just five days, Moscow recognised both provinces as independent states and moved in thousands of troops.
Western capitals have accused the Georgian Dream-led government of mounting a political witch-hunt and Interpol has recently turned down requests from Tbilisi to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.
Tina Bokuchava, a UNM leader accused Ivanishvili of “resorting to violence and intimidation, including orchestrated physical attacks against opposition candidates and their supporters,” during the campaign.
A charismatic reformer who took over in the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, Saakashvili was forced to flee Georgia at the end of his second term in 2013, fearing arrest after prosecutors accused him of abusing power.
He now lives in Ukraine and was appointed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to head a political and economic reforms taskforce.
“How could an election be seen as free and fair if the main opposition leader is robbed of a possibility to return to the country and campaign?” Saakashvili told AFP.
On Sunday, he framed the vote as a clear battle between the opposition coalition and a corrupt ruling elite.
Railing against a ruling elite he says is corrupt, Saakashvili fled Georgia at the end of his second term in 2013 after prosecutors accused him of abusing power.
“Ivanishvili is preparing to rig the elections. We are preparing for a victory,” he said.
Yet for many Georgians, the clash of these heavyweights is less urgent than the stagnant economy, rising food and medicine prices and lack of opportunities for the youth.
“My grandson got his degree, but has no job,” Eteri Demurashvili, an 80-year-old pensioner, told AFP.