Georgia votes in snap polls under shadow of unrest

Georgians began voting on Saturday in a snap presidential election called by fiery pro-Western reformer Mikheil Saakashvili to face down unrest and restore his democratic credentials.

The election, where Saakashvili faces six challengers, opened under thick snow in the strategic ex-Soviet republic’s ancient capital, Tbilisi.

At a polling station in School Number One, Nodar Zardiashvil (49) said he had voted for Saakashvili, “because he is doing the right thing by taking the country into Nato and the European Union”.

Most Georgians back Saakashvili’s strongly pro-Western course and they were expected to vote overwhelmingly in favour of a non-binding referendum also being held Saturday on joining Nato.

Yet Saakashvili, who came to power in the peaceful Rose Revolution four years ago, faces unprecedented opposition following November’s violent unrest and the calling of the early presidential election.

“We’ve had enough of Saakashvili, November was the last straw,” said Nino Saladze (51) an accountant, after voting for the main challenger, wine entrepreneur Levan Gachechiladze.

Hundreds of foreign election observers have deployed in a major test for democracy in the tiny country of about five million people.

On the eve of the election, Saakashvili appealed for voters to give him a fresh mandate “to lead Georgia to victory” and restore the country’s reputation as a leading democratic reformer in the former Soviet Union.

“We have to show the whole world that Georgian democracy is still alive,” he told 20 000 supporters at a final campaign rally in Tbilisi.

But the opposition accused Saakashvili of having rigged the vote in advance and vowed to take to the streets to protest the result.

Opposition candidates said the outcome had already been determined through a series of campaign violations, including media bias in favour of Saakashvili and the use of state resources to support his campaign.

Polls commissioned by the seven candidates in Saturday’s contest offer conflicting data.

Most analysts believe Saakashvili, a multilingual, United States-trained lawyer, is well ahead of Gachechiladze, who was nominated by nine of the 10 opposition parties that organised November’s demonstrations.

However, polls suggest that up to a quarter of voters are undecided, which means that Saakashvili is not certain to get 50% of ballots — the minimum for avoiding the run-off round two weeks from now.

Washington, the European Union and former imperial master Russia are watching closely, mindful of Georgia’s growing strategic importance.

Major US-backed oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to Turkey run via Georgia, and Saakashvili has defied Russian pressure in applying for Nato membership.

Moscow punished Georgia’s pro-Western course with sweeping economic sanctions in 2006 and also supports armed rebels who control two separatist regions of Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi are likely to rise further after the Nato referendum. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Alassane Ouattara: In the eye of Côte d’Ivoire’s perpetual succession crisis

His road to the presidency was anchored in contention and acrimony, and if his bid is successful, Alassane Ouattara will have ruled for two decades when all is said and done.

An African free trade area is in our sights

Successes and failures from other initiative such as the European Union will be instructive, but much work must be done before the African Continental Trade Area becomes a reality

Study shows land redistribution can create new jobs in agriculture in South Africa

When South Africa eventually emerges from the fog of the Covid-19 crisis, will policy makers be ready to grasp the nettle of farm scale, and promote the large-scale redistribution of land to small-scale producers?

Africa can build back better after Covid-19

The continent’s interconnectedness is what will be its catalyst for recovery

Three months in, Covid-19 poses triple threats in Africa

Health, debt and hunger are huge threats to the continent’s stability

Covid-19 and its legacy in cities

Italy’s response to the pandemic can be used as a cautionary tale not only medically but also infrastructurally

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Durban city manager says NPA erred in his bail conditions

The corruption-fraught metro is coming to grips with having a municipal manager who is on bail for graft, yet has returned to work

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

SA justice delays extradition of paedophile to UK

Efforts to bring Lee Nigel Tucker to justice have spanned 16 years and his alleged victims have waited for 30 years

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday