TBILISI, Georgia — Two weeks after videos of prison guards beating and sodomizing prison inmates shocked people here, voters will take part in parliamentary elections on Monday that are being closely watched as a referendum on the pro-Western president who has led this small South Caucasus Mountains country for nearly a decade.
President Mikheil Saakashvili swept to power after the bloodless 2003 Rose Revolution unseated a corrupt regime of post-Soviet apparatchiks. The 44-year-old, American-trained corporate lawyer transformed the strategically located country from an impoverished backwater with intermittent electricity supplies into a fast-developing economy that has seen its GDP grow 7.5 percent this year.
But critics who accuse Saakashvili of authoritarianism say he has entrenched his own small elite in power and squandered money on a few grandiose projects while having failed to improve living conditions for large swaths of a population that remains very poor. They also accuse him of entering Georgia into a brief but devastating war with Russia four years ago.
The elections, nevertheless seen as the most competitive in a decade, will also test Georgia’s political maturity. They’re especially important because they will set the stage for a political transformation that will follow a presidential election next spring, when Saakashvili’s term limit expires and a new constitution will transfer some presidential powers to the prime minister, whom the new parliament will elect.
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The main challenger to Saakashvili’s United National Movement, the UNM, is a coalition called the Georgian Dream, headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili.
He’s had no easy ride. The authorities stripped him of his Georgian citizenship on a technicality shortly after his surprising entry into politics last October. He and other members of his coalition have since been fined more than $60 million for alleged election violations according to rulings the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called “disproportionate” and “harsh.”
Several international organizations have expressed concerns over attacks and harassment against opposition activists.
However, the government has also been praised for enacting reforms to ensure greater competitiveness, including a regulation requiring cable television providers to include both opposition and government-controlled channels in their packages.
Polls last week showed the UNM as set to emerge from a rancorous campaign with a modest victory. But that was before two opposition television channels dealt the government a serious blow by broadcasting the videos of inmates being systematically abused in a prison outside the capital Tbilisi.
They prompted nationwide protests and forced the government to replace the head of the prison system with the human rights ombudsman and dismiss the influential interior minister.
The incident had an especially wide impact because Georgia has the world’s fourth-highest incarceration rate: Most people here are acquainted with someone who has spent time behind bars.
Saakashvili had touted his reform of the infamously corrupt police and prison systems as one of his greatest achievements. In one dramatic move in 2004, his government laid off the country’s entire police force in a single day and started over from scratch. Implementing a “zero-tolerance” policing strategy caused crime to plummet, but quadrupled the prison population.
Besides energizing the opposition ahead of the elections, the prison abuse scandal appears to have mobilized previously indifferent segments of the population, especially young people. Daily protest marches led by student and youth organizations have drawn thousands since the videos emerged.
During a boisterous demonstration at Tbilisi State University, 22-year-old student Giorgi Ghvinjilia said that although reports and rumors about prison abuses had long circulated, the videos made the issue impossible to ignore.
“Civil society has woken up,” he said. “Georgian society and especially its young will be more active in political causes from today.”
Gela Bandzeladze, a lecturer at the Georgian-American University who was also at the protest, said the arrest of low-level prison officials and resignation of two ministers wasn’t enough to satisfy the movement.
“These protests aren’t about only some officials or ministers,” he said. “They’re against the whole system. The whole system is based on violence, it can’t survive without it.”
Elsewhere, at a rally for a ruling party candidate in the same neighborhood, 79-year-old pensioner Ilia Kuchava said he believes the government’s explanation that opposition activists bribed prison guards to commit the abuses on tape in order to tarnish Saakashvili’s administration. He said the president deserved to rule longer.
“He has to win,” he said. “Most people support him. Even if the opposition somehow wins, they won’t have the people’s support.”
An independent poll conducted in late August appeared to back his opinion by giving the UNM a 25-point lead over the Georgian Dream, 37 to 12. However, 43 percent of respondents either said they didn’t know whom they would vote for or refused to answer.
Many observers said fear probably caused some opposition supporters to claim to be undecided.
Lincoln Mitchell of Columbia University, who’s written two books about Saakashvili’s administration, says he doesn’t believe the UNM can win without resorting to election fraud in the wake of the prison scandal.
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“Its support was broader than it was deep, and [the prison scandal] is peeling away some of that,” he said. “Obviously there’s a hard core [of supporters], and I would put it at something like 25 percent.”
Even with Georgian Dream favored to win, however, Georgia’s parliamentary system makes it difficult for newcomers to form a majority. Half the parliament’s 150 seats go to deputies directly elected in single-member districts. The other seats are filled from party lists according to the results of proportional voting.
The UNM’s candidates for single-mandate districts are largely well-known figures running established campaign operations, while many Georgian Dream candidates are obscure and inexperienced. The coalition could therefore reap the majority of the vote but end up with only a minority of seats.
Many worry that each side’s high expectations for victory may prompt prolonged protests and possibly civil unrest following the vote.
Saakashvili has said that Ivanishvili — who made most of his estimated $6.4 billion fortune in Russia — is a Russian stooge intent on toppling Georgia’s pro-Western government and returning the country to Moscow’s orbit.
The president accused Russia of giving the opposition $2 billion to foment unrest and dispute election results in order to provide Moscow a pretext to invade.
One longtime Western observer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his ongoing work with both opposition and ruling party politicians said he found Saakashvili’s accusations exaggerated and polarizing, but that he was also concerned about the Georgian Dream’s strategy. He said its campaign has run surprising little political advertising even on opposition TV channels despite the large funds at its disposal.
“If you follow the money, you’re left with only three conclusions,” he said. “They’re spending money on things we don’t know about, they’re not really trying to win, or it’s the worst political campaign ever run.”
The elections carry high stakes for Tbilisi’s geopolitical ambitions. Georgia has been one of the top per capita recipients of American aid over the last five years and aspires to both NATO and EU membership. It has about 1,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan and plans to send an additional 700 troops as NATO members draw down theirs.
Although NATO has pledged that Georgia will eventually become a member, both the US ambassador to Georgia and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have said Monday’s elections will be a “litmus test” for whether the country would continue to be considered a democracy on a Euro-Atlantic path.