'Dream' Opposition Ahead of Saakashvili in Georgia's Elections - Exit Polls

World | October 1, 2012, Monday // 20:07
Bulgaria: 'Dream' Opposition Ahead of Saakashvili in Georgia's Elections - Exit Polls Georgian billionaire and Georgian Dream opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili (front L) and his wife Ekaterine Khvedelidze (front R) during the parliamentary elections, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 01 October 2012. EPA/BGNES

The Georgian Dream opposition coalition, led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, is in the lead in Georgia's parliamentary elections, according to the first exit polls.

The Georgian Dream has won 51% of the vote, exit polls by Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV say, as cited by RIA Novosti.

Georgia's ruling United National Movement (UNM), led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, is trailing with 41 percent of the vote, according to the exit polls.

Georgia voted in parliamentary elections on Monday amid heated rhetoric from its two major political forces and fears of post-poll violence in this small, yet strategically important, South Caucasus country with aspirations of EU and NATO membership.

The elections have taken on particular importance in the light of a law passed in 2010 that transfers the majority of the president's executive powers to the prime minister. The law comes into force from 2013 when Saakashvili's second term ends. Whoever wins Monday's polls will be able to appoint the prime minister.

Saakashvili's UNM enjoyed a healthy lead in opinion polls until last month, when opposition channels aired explicit footage of male inmates at a Tbilisi jail being sexually assaulted with broom handles. The videos triggered large protests across Georgia and widespread anger at Saakashvili and the UNM.

The torture tapes appear to have caused real damage to the ruling coalition's hopes of reelection. A survey released last week by the German research institute Forsa indicated that 65 percent of voters were now preparing to back Georgian Dream at Monday's polls, while only 25 percent supported Saakashvili's UNM.

RIA Novosti reminds that US-educated lawyer Saakashvili, 44, came to power after a 2003 revolt against the regime led by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and he has attempted to portray Monday's elections as a choice between continued "modernization" and a return to what he dubs the "dark days" of the 1990s, when the former Soviet republic lay within Moscow's sphere of influence.

Ivanishvili, 56, and his supporters accuse Saakashvili of running a dictatorship and say his policies have brought Georgia – a country of 4.5 million that is an important transit route for oil and gas to the West – to the brink of disaster, not least by leading it into a ruinous 2008 war with its vast neighbor, Russia. Critics also say that while Saakashvili has all but eradicated once rife low- and mid-level corruption, high-level graft remains widespread.

And while staunch US-ally Georgia has earned plaudits from the World Bank for its far-reaching business reforms, the opposition says it has done nothing to alleviate poverty, and that the true number of unemployed is far above the official figure which hovers around 15 percent.

But critics say Georgian Dream is little more than a rag-tag alliance of parties with very little in common and that Ivanishvili will be hard-pressed to suppress the more nationalist and xenophobic elements of his coalition should it come to power this month.

Saakashvili has also painted his ultra-wealthy rival, who made much of his money in Russia in the 1990s, as a Kremlin stooge seeking to "return Georgia to Russia's imperial space."

Ivanishvili has dismissed these allegations as "laughable." Like the UNM, Georgian Dream also states NATO and EU membership among its priority policies, although the coalition also pledges to improve relations with Russia.

Ivanishvili backed Saakashvili in the aftermath of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, even funding, he says, the new president's inauguration. And for years the businessman showed little interest in being directly involved in politics, preferring instead to finance charity projects and breed penguins at his mansion in western Georgia.

But the enigmatic tycoon dropped a bombshell into Georgian politics last October when he announced that he would use some of his vast fortune of USD 6.4 B – equivalent to around half the country's GDP – to create an alternative to the UNM, which has been in power for the past eight years.

The authorities responded by stripping him of his Georgian passport in 2011 after revelations that he is also a French citizen. Ivanishvili has said he will take advantage of a law allowing EU nationals who have lived in Georgia for more than five years to hold public office to become prime minister if his opposition coalition triumphs at Monday's polls. He says he will leave office after "one or two years" if his bid for power is successful.

Ivanishvili refused to vote at Monday's polls in protest at what he said was the authorities' "distortion" of the constitution, and said the law on EU nationals had been approved especially for him to rescue Georgia's international image.

Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia since 2008, when it fought and lost a five-day war with its powerful neighbor over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Russia subsequently recognized the sovereignty of South Ossetia and another breakaway republic, Abkhazia. But a mere handful of countries have so far followed suit.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti points out that while Russia has not backed either side at the polls, there is great personal antipathy between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in the aftermath of the South Ossetia conflict that he would like to "hang him [Saakashvili] by the balls."

And European Union military monitors said last week that Russian troops had been building up at the administrative border with South Ossetia and that a Russian helicopter had briefly landed on Georgian-controlled territory. Moscow said the helicopter had touched down in Georgia "by mistake."

A major military exercise carried out last month by Russia in its North Caucasus region also unsettled Tbilisi, although Moscow says the drills had been planned well before the announcement of the October 1 elections.

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Tags: Tbilisi, Abkhazia, Southern Caucasus, Caucasus, South Ossetia, EU, NATO, Russia, parliamentary elections, elections, UNM, United National Movement, Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian Prime Minister, Georgian President, Georgia

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