From Misha to Bidzina: a new era for Georgia
Bidzina Ivanishvili has defeated Mikheil Saakashvili at the poll - but it should never be forgotten that such a transfer of power will only be possible as a result of the work of Saakashvili himself
The United National Movement (UNM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili has been defeated in the country’s parliamentary elections. With vote counting now well underway, the insurgent Georgian Dream Coalition headed by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili appears to be on course to secure victory in the elections for the country’s National Assembly.
The Dream Coalition’s victory comes as somewhat of a surprise, given that pre-election polls had hinted at a narrow lead for the governing party.
This was undoubtedly the most important parliamentary election in the country’s history with the winning party having the ability to nominate its candidate for the newly-powerful post of Prime Minister. Following UNM-led constitutional reforms passed in 2010, the President’s office will assume a largely ceremonial role with the Prime Minister having day-to-day control over domestic and foreign policy.
The constitutional reform will come into office following the conclusion of Mikheil Saakashvili’s second (and final) Presidential term that must take place no later than October 2013.
Saakashvili, who has ruled the country since 2004, has transformed the country from a Soviet-era basket case to a vibrant market economy that frequently ranks amongst the easiest places in the world to do business.
A decrepit and decaying backwater until a few years ago, the country’s elegant capital Tbilisi is now teaming with designer boutiques and packed bistros. Independent political polls suggest levels of public trust in the police force significantly outstrip those in Western Europe, with corruption virtually eliminated from public life.
High above the city, surrounded by a plethora of distinctive Georgian Orthodox churches, stands Mikheil Saakashvili’s imposing Presidential Palace. Directly across the valley, on the other side of the fast-running Mtkvari River stands Bidzina Ivanishvili’s home, a gauche glass and metal compound located up the hill from a dusty and run-down part of the capital.
The homes of the two leaders closely embody their public perceptions; the Presidential Palace a familiar site to all Georgians while Ivanishvili’s compound lies behind layers of security. While both Georgians and the international community are well aware of President Saakashvili’s fiery rhetoric rumbustious style, Ivanishvili was, until recently, a virtual recluse.
Beyond his personal wealth, glitzy TV commercials, and upbeat cries of the stock Georgian political phrase “gaumarjos” (“victory”) at perfectly stage-managed campaign rallies, relatively little is known about Bidzina Ivanishvili, who returned to the country last year after decades abroad. While living abroad, Ivanishvili amassed a US$6 billion fortune in the Russian metals industry which he targeted at scores of philanthropic projects in the run-up to the elections.
The same sense of mystery surrounding Ivanishvili can also be said to apply to his party which, unlike Saakashvili’s unabashedly Thatcherite UNM, lacks any coherent political ideology. The party’s membership ranges from xenophobic nationalists seeking to pick a fight with the country’s Armenian and Azeri minorities, to dispossessed supporters of the deposed former President Eduard Shevardnadze and run-of-the-mill political moderates.
The glue that has held the Dream Coalition together during the election campaign isn’t a genuine sense of admiration for Ivanishvili but rather a passionate dislike for the President. The party’s lack of ideological coherence could well prove its undoing as Ivanishvili seeks to balance the desires of competing political and regional demands with the rigours of actual, day-to-day government.
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