Georgians to Give Election Verdict on Billionaire’s Dream: Q&A

  • Premier sees majority in ex-Soviet republic’s next parliament
  • Economy dominated campaign after currency crisis this year

Georgians will vote on Saturday for a new parliament, less than 10 months after Giorgi Kvirikashvili became prime minister amid deepening economic hardship for many of his countrymen.

The ballot will be the biggest electoral test for the ruling Georgian Dream party, which swept to power in 2012, six months after being formed by reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. The party then defeated former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which had ruled since the 2003 Rose revolution. Over the past year, the government has struggled to contain a currency crisis, which kept voters focused on the economy as it reeled from the impact of the Ukrainian conflict and Russia’s slide into recession.

Who’s running in the election?

Georgian Dream won 85 of parliament’s 150 seats in a bloc with five other parties in 2012. Ivanishvili was prime minister for a year before handing over to Irakli Garibashvili, then Europe’s youngest premier at age 31. Garibashvili resigned in December as the government sought to shake off unpopularity over the economy.

The ruling party’s closest competitor remains UNM, now led by former diplomat Davit Bakradze, with Saakashvili serving as the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region. Bakradze lost the 2013 presidential election in a landslide to Georgian Dream’s Giorgi Margvelashvili.

Smaller political forces running in the election include the Democratic Movement -- United Georgia party of former parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, a key figure in the 2003 revolution who later broke with Saakashvili and came in third in the presidential ballot.

What’s the likely outcome?

Polling has been scarce, with a high number of undecided voters, which has allowed both sides to sound confident before the election.

Of the few polls that are available, Georgian Dream was ahead at 19 percent, to UNM’s 14 percent, with more than 50 percent yet to pick a party in a survey of 4,112 people in June and July by the National Democratic Institute in Tbilisi, the capital. The same pollster showed Prime Minister Kvirikashvili with a positive rating of 21 percentage points in a March poll of 3,900 people.

“The government is unpopular generally, but people are not supportive of any other party either, so they may make up their minds at the very last moment,” Ghia Nodia, director of the International School of Caucasus Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, the capital, said by phone. The UNM’s “high negative ratings continues to be its main challenge” among voters who recall its “autocratic” rule, he said.

Georgian Dream will win “at least 90” seats, Ivanishvili said Monday, according to the news website. There’s “no doubt” the UNM will win, Saakashvili told supporters via video link at a Tbilisi rally Wednesday.

Voters will choose 73 members in single-member constituencies, with 77 seats filled from party lists according to the proportion of votes gained above a 5 percent threshold.

What are the main issues in the election?

Georgia’s lari fell to record-low 2.5 to the dollar in February after declining 21 percent in 2015. While it’s recovered some ground since, pre-election tensions are contributing to volatility that’s prompted interventions by the central bank in the past month to try to stabilize the currency.

The “tone of the campaign is confrontational” and is influenced by “the country’s poor economic performance along with the public disillusionment with the political elite,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in an interim report on Sept. 23.

Kvirikashvili, a former economy minister, is betting his business-friendly reputation will sway voters. He’s forecast economic growth averaging 7 percent to 8 percent a year to 2026, more than double the present rate, as infrastructure improvements particularly in transport and tourism draw in foreign investment.

How can the outcome affect international relations?

Amid persistent tensions with Russia after a 2008 war, both Georgian Dream and the UNM advocate membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union for the former Soviet republic of 4.5 million people. An agreement late last year giving Georgians visa-free travel to the EU has repeatedly stalled.

After a leading opposition politician, Givi Targamadze, escaped injury when his car exploded in Tbilisi late Tuesday in what police said was a murder attempt, Kvirikashvili called the blast “a provocation plotted by Georgia’s enemies” to destabilize the elections.

Georgia reached a free-trade agreement with China last month. Work also began on a new $2.5 billion seaport on the Black Sea coast at Anaklia that Kvirikashvili has said could become “one of the world’s great trading hubs” along the historic “Silk Road” linking Europe and China.