Voters in Georgia are going to the polls in a presidential election runoff on Wednesday that pits a candidate backed by the ruling party who favors balancing ties with Moscow and the West against a rival who advocates a stronger pro-Western line.
- Grigol Vashadze is a former foreign minister and the candidate for Georgia’s main opposition, the United National Movement (UNM). The party was founded by ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, who was sentenced in absentia for abuse of power earlier this year.
- Salome Zurabishvili is also a former Georgian foreign minister and an independent candidate but endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, founded by billionaire former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
To win, one of the candidates must gain over 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, there will be a further ballot.
Zurabishvili takes a pragmatic line, balancing Georgia’s aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonizing Moscow.
If Vashadze wins, he is likely to use the presidency’s limited powers to push a vocal message of integration with the US-led NATO alliance and the European Union. These are sensitive issues in a country that fought a war in 2008 with its neighbor Russia.
Tbilisi signed an association agreement with Brussels in 2014, but has yet to request full membership of the bloc.
Salome Zurabishvili, endorsed by the ruling party, favors a pragmatic approach between Moscow and the West
Close first round
In the first round, Zurabishvili, a former career diplomat and Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004-2005, received 38.7 percent of the on October 28.
That was just one percentage point ahead of Vashadze with 37.7 percent. He was a foreign minister in 2008-2012 in the decidedly pro-Western government that was in power when the conflict with Russia broke out over a Moscow-backed breakaway territory.
The authority of the president has been reduced with constitutional changes and put most levers of power in the hands of the prime minister, a Georgian Dream loyalist, Mamuka Bakhtadze.
International observers who were on the ground for the first round said that voting had been competitive, but held on “an unlevel playing field” with state resources misused, private media biased, and some phony candidates taking part.
The first round result was a disappointment for Georgian Dream and its founder Ivanishvili. He is Georgia’s richest man, and critics say he rules the country from behind the scenes.
Zurabishvili’s supporters claim that she would bring international stature to the presidency. However, her opponents have criticized her for statements she made that appeared to blame Georgia for war with Russia in 2008 as well as remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic.
The second round will be held under close scrutiny, from opposition and international observers, for any sign the ruling party is using its control of the state machinery to help Zurabishvili win.
It is the last time the president will be elected by the voting public. Constitutional changes mean the 300-strong college of electors made up of MPs and regional government representatives will make the choice next time.
av/jm (dpa, Reuters)