Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili faced his biggest test in a decade in power yesterday as Georgians voted in a parliamentary election overshadowed by a prison abuse scandal that has fueled accusations of government repression.
Saakashvili, who swept to the presidency after the Rose Revolution of 2003 and led the country into a brief, disastrous war with Russia in 2008, says his main challenger, Bidzina Ivanishvili, would move the former Soviet republic away from the West and bring it closer to Moscow once again.
Ivanishvili, a tycoon with a fortune nearly half the size of Georgia’s economy, hopes the prison scandal will convince undecided voters that Saakashvili has become an undemocratic leader who tramples on rights and freedoms. Video of torture, beatings and sexual abuse of prison inmates led to street protests after it was aired on two television channels opposed to Saakashvili.
“I’m voting against violence and abuse — how can I do otherwise after what we have all seen on TV?” Natela Zhorzholia, 68, said outside a polling station in the capital, Tbilisi.
She said she would vote for Ivanishvili’s six-party Georgian Dream movement.
The election also heralds constitutional changes which will affect any future leadership.
Saakashvili, 44, must step down after a presidential vote next year, when reforms will weaken the role of head of state giving more power to the Georgian parliament and the prime minister.
However, if his United National Movement (UNM) retains its dominance of parliament, that may give him a way to remain in charge of the country of 4.5 million, an important gas and oil transit route to the West.
Many Georgians just want political and economic stability. The economy, hit by the 2008 war and the global financial crisis, has been growing since 2010, but inflation is likely to hit 6 to 7 percent this year.
“The most important thing is that those who are dissatisfied should not create disorder,” said voter Yelena Kvlividze, 45.
Ivanishvili told a rally on Saturday: “This regime’s hours are numbered.”
However, he has also said Georgian Dream will accept any outcome deemed legitimate by international observers.
A poll by the US National Democratic Institute in August gave UNM 37 percent support against 12 percent for Georgian Dream, but showed 43 percent of respondents could vote either way. There have been no major polls since the abuse scandal.