Georgia’s election is above all a vote on the record of Mikheil Saakashvili.
By Tamar Kadagidze and Sopho Bukia in Tbilisi (CRS No. 425 03-Jan-08)
As Georgia heads for a presidential election on January 5, the incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili is the favourite, but there is no certainty that he will win an easy victory.
Opinion polls give radically different assessments of the chances of Saakashvili and his six rivals, of whom businessman Levan Gachechiladze, the candidate nominated by a coalition of nine opposition parties, stands the best chance of victory. Gachechiladze is standing more as an “anti-presidential candidate”, and has pledged to change the constitution to abolish the institution of presidency if he wins.
The campaign has been stirred up by the actions of controversial tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili – the Saakashvili administration’s chief opponent - who announced that he was withdrawing his name from the race on December 27, only to announce on January 3 that he was still a candidate.
Patarkatsishvili initially pulled out of the race after compromising video and audio material, allegedly recorded in London, were broadcast in Georgia. In the audio tapes Patarkatsishvili appears to promise a leading police official, Erekle Kodua, 100 million US dollars in return for his assisting him and “neutralising” Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.
Patarkatsishvili said he was the victim of a dirty tricks campaign. The Sunday Times newspaper in London published an article saying he was the intended target of an assassination plot.
Following the airing of the tapes, other opposition candidates including Gachechiladze, who had earlier said he would accept funding from Patarkatsishvili, distanced themselves from the businessman.
At the same time, Imedi television, which is co-owned by Patarkatsishvili, and which was temporarily shut down in November, went off the air again in what it said was a protest against attacks on its patron.
Saakashvili called the early election as a result of the political crisis that hit Georgia in November, in which riot police used force to break up opposition demonstrations in Tbilisi and the government imposed a state of emergency. The events tarnished the president’s democratic credentials both at home and abroad.
In January 2004, Saakashvili was elected with 98 per cent of the vote. This time there are predictions that he may fail to collect more than half the vote on January 5, and will be forced into a second round on January 19.
The Ukrainian think-tank Common European Cause, which is planning to conduct an exit poll, has predicted that Gachechiladze will collect 30 per cent of the vote and Saakashvili 16 per cent.
By contrast, the Georgian Business Consulting Group, BCG, which did a survey of voters on behalf of Saakashvili’s campaign headquarters, forecast that the incumbent would be re-elected with 61 per cent of the vote. The opposition has disputed the objectivity of the survey.
The election resembles as much a referendum on the presidency of Saakashvili as a contest between candidates.
Opposition candidates have concentrated their fire on Saakashvili, and he is very much the focus of their campaigning. In one election broadcast, a voice clip of the president saying Georgia is a strong democracy is played over pictures of the November 7 violence.
The main slogan of Gachechiladze – a relatively unknown figure in Georgia prior to this campaign – is “No to violence!”
For his part, the former president, who was fierce in his criticism of his opponents before the campaign began, now barely mentions them. In one political talk-show, he said he was prepared to work constructively with the opposition if he were elected.
Saakashvili has conducted a high-profile campaign and his portrait and a white number 5 on a red background – his position on the ballot-paper - adorn buses, street billboards, bus-stops and shop windows across Georgia.
The president has sought to recapture the man-of-the-people image he had during the 2003 Rose Revolution and the subsequent election, by walking through crowds, shaking hands and embracing people. In one video-clip he is shown with tears in his eyes as he meets pensioners who are refugees from Abkhazia. The opposition said the tears were faked, but Saakashvili said anyone in his position would have wept.
Widely criticised for spending too much of his first term outside Georgia and ignoring domestic issues, Saakashvili has made his main electoral slogan “Georgia Without Poverty.” He has said his priorities for a second term will be socioeconomic development and the return of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia.
“I am appealing to people who live below the poverty line,” said Saakashvili. “I need the support of people like you. I will dedicate the second term of my presidency to you.”
At New Year, Saakashvili travelled to the mountainous Upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia now under Georgian control, where he delivered a message - transmitted live on television – telling people displaced from Abkhazia that he would enable them to return home.
Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze said that Saakashvili’s active campaign had been “too intensive” and his poll rating had dropped as a result.
“I think a second round is inevitable, as none of the candidates will get more than 25 per cent of the vote and it will be very hard to double that figure in [the next] two days,” said Sakvarelidze.
Another analyst, Archil Gegeshidze, said Saakashvili had the advantage of being the incumbent and enjoying the support of pro-government media. At the same time, said Gegeshidze, he he was in danger of losing if it came to a second round.
“I think Saakashvili will get more votes than the other candidates,” he said. “But I am not sure he will avoid a second round. If Saakashvili wins in the first round, he will not get more than 60 per cent of the vote, but if there is a second round it could go 70 per cent to the opposition and 30 per cent to Saakashvili.”
Some voters in Tbilisi say the process is as important as the result.
Tamaz Sokhadze, 37, said he would vote for the opposition, though without great conviction, but he was pleased that the election was taking place in the way it is.
“I think that despite all the negative events which have occurred recently there is one important positive element here,” he said. “It is the fact that we do not know 100 per cent if one particular candidate will win. This is the first time that we have seen that here. There is a lesson for every future president of Georgia – from the 100-per-cent poll rating that Misha [Saakashvili] had, you can plummet quickly to 20 per cent.”
Natia Abramishvili, 26, said, “The most important thing is that the elections aren’t rigged. In any case Saakashvili has been making so many mistakes recently and a rigged election could really ruin the country.”
“I don’t believe in the opposition, they are too diverse and not qualified enough in my view. They will fall out immediately after the election. I will vote for Saakashvili, I don’t see any alternative.”
Tamar Kadagidze is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi. Sopho Bukia is IWPR’s Georgia editor.