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Georgian Billionaire’s Party Set to Cement Power in Local Polls

Georgians voted in municipal elections today that are expected to bolster the power base of the party backed by billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili, who spearheaded the opposition in 2012, pulled off a shock victory over President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in parliamentary elections that year, and then secured the election of his ally as president in 2013.

The Georgian Dream coalition’s candidate for mayor of the capital, Tbilisi, Davit Narmania, is forecast to get about 46 percent of votes, compared with 27 percent for the opposition United National Movement’s contender, Nikoloz Melia, according to an exit poll by GFK for Rustavi 2 television after the election ended. That would lead to a run-off vote, GFK said, predicting a second round in several other of the 12 cities holding mayoral elections today.

Capturing the Tbilisi City Hall would complete the defeat of Saakashvili, who swept to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution and pivoted the ex-Soviet country toward the U.S. and Europe. Preliminary results in all the regional polls are expected tomorrow.

While Ivanishvili, 58, set out to improve ties with Russia, he’s persisting with some of the former leader’s policies such as seeking European Union and NATO membership. Georgia is scheduled to sign an association agreement with the 28-member EU this month.

Chosen Successor

The opposition claims that the tycoon, worth $5.8 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index, has continued running the Black Sea nation from behind the scenes since he stepped down after only about a year in office in 2013. He named a 31-year-old interior minister and his closest ally, Irakli Garibashvili, as his chosen successor. The premier carries more powers according to the new constitution than President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who was also Ivanishvili’s hand-picked candidate.

“Ivanishvili risks mimicking his main rival’s fate by becoming too controlling of the situation and cracking down on the opposition,” Emzar Jgherenaia, a professor at Ilia University, said by phone from Tbilisi. “It’s typical of post-Soviet political mentality.”

The U.S. and Europe warned Ivanishvili’s government to refrain from applying selective justice after it took power. Several former officials remain in jail, while the country’s premier said today’s elections “will finally put an end to the United National Movement.”

“These elections are not very decisive but they mark a continuity of my policies, real democracy,” Ivanishvili said after casting his ballot in Guria, near his Black Sea residence. “These polls will be a proof of that.”

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said last week that Georgia’s next steps after signing the association agreement, to bring it closer to the European Union, can’t succeed without the role of the opposition. “This cannot be just the project of the elite, but a very inclusive project, which mobilizes all pro-European forces in the region,” he said in an interview in Tbilisi.

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