Ge­or­gia holds sec­ond round of hotly con­tested pres­i­den­tial vote

Global Times US Edition - - WORLD -

Ge­or­gians on Wed­nes­day went to the polls in the sec­ond round of a knife-edge pres­i­den­tial elec­tion seen as a cru­cial test for the in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar rul­ing party led by a bil­lion­aire oli­garch.

The new head of state will be a largely cer­e­mo­nial fig­ure, but the vote is seen as a trial run for the con­test be­tween busi­ness­man Bidz­ina Ivan­ishvili’s rul­ing Ge­or­gian Dream party and the op­po­si­tion in more im­por­tant par­lia­men­tary polls set for 2020.

Ten­sions have been high ahead of the vote, with some warn­ing of po­ten­tial un­rest in the pro-Western repub­lic, which has been shaken by civil wars and a 2008 con­flict with Rus­sia since gain­ing its in­de­pen­dence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the first round held on Oc­to­ber 28, the Ge­or­gian Dream-backed can­di­date, for­mer French am­bas­sador Sa­lome Zura­bishvili, failed to take the 50-per­cent-plus-one-vote needed to win out­right.

Zura­bishvili, 66, took 39 per­cent of the vote against 38 per­cent for 60-year-old op­po­si­tion leader Grigol Vashadze, who is sup­ported by ex­iled for­mer pres­i­dent Mikheil Saakashvil­i’s United Na­tional Move­ment and 10 other groups.

Vashadze was nar­rowly lead­ing in opin­ion polls ahead of the sec­ond round, and was given a ma­jor boost with the en­dorse­ment of ex-par­lia­ment speaker David Bakradze of the Euro­pean Ge­or­gia party.

He came third in the first round with nearly 11 per­cent.

A win for Vashadze would dras­ti­cally change the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape, sig­nal­ing a likely end to Ge­or­gian Dream’s six-year dom­i­nance.

In a tele­vised state­ment aired af­ter the first round, Ivan­ishvili ad­dressed vot­ers, say­ing he heard their “heartache.”

“I hear that you are dis­sat­is­fied, since your life did not im­prove,” he said, look­ing pale and al­most tear­ful.

In what crit­ics de­rided as “vote-buy­ing,” Ivan­ishvili promised the gov­ern­ment would dras­ti­cally in­crease so­cial spend­ing and pledged to spend his own money to write off the bank loans of more than 600,000 in­di­vid­u­als.

Ten­sions have risen af­ter the op­po­si­tion claimed rul­ing party ac­tivists had at­tacked mem­bers of Vashadze’s cam­paign staff. Zura­bishvili said she and her chil­dren re­ceived death threats from peo­ple af­fil­i­ated with the UNM.

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