On 24 October 2012 Georgia's future prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, said he planned to quit politics in 18 months. The billionaire politician made the announcement to opposition lawmakers in parliament. Mr. Ivanishvili, who had previously said he had no long-term political aspirations, said he will stick to his election promises but leave politics after a year-and-a-half. He told lawmakers that after stepping down, he will become an active member of civil society. On 25 October 2012 Georgia's parliament has confirmed a new government led by billionaire-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili. Some 88 legislators were in favor, while 54 voted against. Eight members of parliament were not present at the session held in the western city of Kutaisi.
Parliamentary elections were held on 01 October 2012 and a presidential election is scheduled for 2013. President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded the defeat of his United National Movement party to the upstart Georgian Dream opposition bloc backed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man. The six-party coalition, pieced together by Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has remained united through the electoral season, but they were united by little more than opposition to Saakashvili. It is widely expected that once seated in parliament it will crumble into the sort of legislative infighting that marked post-Orange Revolution Ukraine. It is said that Ivanishvili hopes to claim the prime minister's spot, though as of election day he was neither a member of the next parliament, nor even a citizen of Georgia.
On 16 October 2012, Georgia's presidential press office said that President Saakashvili had restored Georgian citizenship to prime ministerial nominee Bidzina Ivanishvili, opening the way for his appointment. Ivanishvili had previously renounced his French citizenship, but French authorities informed him that his citizenship could only be annuled once his Georgian citizenship was restored.
Under Georgia’s constitution, President Saakashvili was prevented from running for a third term in 2013, though he remains in office until October 2013. The competitive election reinforced Georgia’s post-Soviet reputation as an island of democracy in an authoritarian neighborhood. President Mikheil Saakashvili faced the strongest challenge since he was first elected eight years ago.
Georgia suffered from "regime fatigue" and polarizing political divisions. The recent release of videos documenting horrific abuse in the country's prisons sparked massive protests in the capital Tbilisi and deepened doubts about the government's commitment to democracy. The president's reputation as a guarantor of liberalism and security were undermined by the crackdown on antigovernment protests in 2007 and the brief, cataclysmic war with Russia in August 20008. Unemployment is officially 16.5 percent, although the actual figure may be twice as high. Two-thirds of people between the ages of 20 and 24 are out of work. An August 2012 U.S. National Democratic Institute poll found that joblessness and affordable health care were the top concerns for potential voters, with issues of NATO membership, human rights, and even territorial integrity of secondary importance.
Ivanishvili's Russian-made billions have provoked sharp criticism that he is the Kremlin's man in the parliamentary race, ready to sell out Georgia's political independence and return the country to Moscow's fold. But Ivanishvili has sold off most of his Russian assets and spent the last decade living in Georgia.
The parliamentary elections are for a total of 150 mandates (77 under the proportional party-list system and 73 in single-mandate constituencies). A total of 14 parties and two blocs registered to compete, while three opposition parties – United Georgia, Georgia’s Path, and the Greens – opted not to run. The election is primarily a contest between President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM), and the opposition Georgian Dream bloc of billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili. The Christian Democrats bloc, and possibly the New Rightists and the populist Labor Party, stand a chance to win parliamentary representation. Voters will have a choice between 2,806 candidates, including 2,313 candidates from party lists on the proportional ballot and 493 candidates on majoritarian ballots. Preliminary voter lists include a total of 3,621,256 voters.
On October 15, 2010, the Parliament approved a number of amendments to the constitution, including provisions that shift political powers from the president to the prime minister following the 2013 presidential election. Saakashvili’s second and final term expires in October 2013. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission considered the October 15 constitutional amendments to contain “several important improvements” but criticized the no-confidence procedures as a potential source of instability due to the time frame involved in the process and a potentially cumbersome process. Civil society activists, opposition leaders, the Venice Commission, and others had urged the Parliament to extend the period of debate which would have allowed “greater public buy-in and credibility.”
Many had assumed that once his second term had ended, the 44-year-old Saakashvili would attempt to move into the newly empowered premiership, like his arch nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the United National Movement indicated it is backing the country's current prime minister, Vano Merabishvili, for the post.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) sought to induce the maximum number of political parties, in particular its main opposition rival, the Georgian Dream bloc headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, to sign up to a four-point code of conduct. The code of conduct was aimed at ensuring that the 01 October 2012 parliamentary election campaign is peaceful, free, and fair, and that all parties participating agree in advance to accept the outcome as legitimate if it is assessed as such by international election observers. But the chances of doing so now appear remote after the head of the OSCE/ODIHR International Election Observation Mission said it is not the task of that mission to rule on the “legitimacy” of the election. Two opposition parties represented in the outgoing parliament -- the New Rightists and the Christian-Democratic Movement -- indicated that they would sign the ENM’s declaration, as did the National Democratic Party. But Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream categorically rejected as unacceptable any a priori endorsement of the election results.
The tone of campaign messages of both UNM and GD senior leadership and majoritarian candidates was confrontational and rough. While the UNM leadership systematically questions the origins of Mr. Ivanishvili’s assets and his political agenda in case of victory, the GD responds by accusing the UNM of misrepresenting facts. Door-to-door campaigning and small-sized meetings in villages and small urban communities are widely used by most parties. The UNM and GD additionally organized large-scale rallies and concerts and are engaged in attracting voters from across all segments of the population. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) election bloc and New Rights (NR) mostly rely on their traditional rural electorate.
Ivanishvili is not running for election, having been stripped of his Georgian citizenship in October 2011 and having spurned the constitutional loophole created to enable citizens of EU member states who had lived in Georgia for 10 years to run for public office. The Georgian Dream bloc consists of six members -- Democratic Georgia, the Conservative Party, the Republican Party, Industry Will Save Georgia, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, and the National Forum. Georgia has been a democratic republic since the presidential elections and constitutional referendum of October 1995. The President is elected for a term of 5 years, limited to 2 terms; his constitutional successor is the Chairman of the Parliament. A powerful coalition of reformists headed by Mikheil Saakashvili, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania came together to oppose Shevardnadze's government in the 02 November 2003 parliamentary elections. The elections were widely regarded as rigged and the opposition organised massive demonstrations in the streets of Tbilisi. After two tense weeks, Shevardnadze resigned on 23 November 2003, and was replaced as president on an interim basis by Burjanadze. These events became known as the Rose Revolution. In January 2004 Mikheil Saakashvili was elected to a 5-year term. President Saakashvili was inaugurated on January 25, 2004. New parliamentary elections had been called for March 7, 2004.
International observers determined that the January 2004 presidential elections and the March 2004 parliamentary elections represented significant progress over previous elections and brought the country closer to meeting international standards, although several irregularities were noted. In contrast to previous years, there were fewer reports of harassment or violence against religious minorities. Police bribery of motorists also decreased significantly due to an overhaul of the highway police and elimination of the traditional traffic police.
Saakashvili was re-elected in January 2008, in snap presidential elections brought forward by several months following large-scale protests in November 2007, which led the government to call a state of emergency. The government received an absolute majority in parliament at elections in May 2008 following last-minute changes to the election code. A number of opposition politicians subsequently chose not to take up their seats in Parliament.
The August 2008 war with Russia provided temporary political unity, but demonstrations and calls for Saakashvili’s resignation started to resurface towards the end of 2008. The non-parliamentary opposition organised demonstrations that lasted from April- June 2009, demanding Saakashvili’s resignation and the holding of early elections. They accused Saakashvili of fraud in the 2008 elections, blamed him for taking Georgia into an unnecessary war, and eroding democracy. The protests largely passed off peacefully, despite accusations of police heavy-handedness and of protestors and journalists being attacked.
Critics accused Saakashvili of persecuting political opponents, controlling the media and not doing enough to tackle poverty. But disagreements on tactics and the failure to put forward any consistent policies have weakened the opposition, and protests have failed to threaten the government. Meanwhile, Saakashvili has continued to try and hold a dialogue on electoral and constitutional reform with moderate elements in the opposition.
Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili made his fortune during the 1990s in Russia. With a fortune of $6.4 billion, Ivanishvili built a following here by giving charity to thousands of people. He has used his money to pay for a television channel and to forge a coalition of anti-Saakashvili forces. According to the results of a poll by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, the Saakashvili's United National Movement rating in September 2011 was 44 percent, while the four most popular opposition parties together polled just 22 percent.
After billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili announced in October 2011 that he intended to establish an opposition political party to compete in the 2012 parliamentary elections, there were reports that government officials targeted individuals and businesses associated with him for politically motivated harassment. In one illustrative example, materials imported by Ivanishvili for business and political purposes were repeatedly and inexplicably found to be damaged following their release from customs. Moreover, representatives from Ivanishvili’s Cartu Group reported the percentage of their imports delayed by additional inspection increased from 10 percent to 100 percent since Ivanishvili entered politics. An independent monitoring company contracted by Cartu Group confirmed that Cartu imports were undamaged prior to customs entry and damaged after customs released the cargo.
Pursuant to Article 32 of the Law on Citizenship, the government canceled the Georgian citizenship of Ivanishvili and his wife, Ekaterine Khvedelidze, on 11 October 2011, several days after Ivanishvili publicly acknowledged possessing French citizenship while declaring his intention to renounce it. Article 32 provides that a person loses his or her Georgian citizenship if he or she acquires another citizenship. Both Ivanishvili and Khvedelidze challenged their loss of citizenship in court. In a December 27 decision, the Tbilisi City Court found that the government had overreached in the case of Khvedelidze, since she had acquired her Georgian citizenship after her French citizenship, and annulled the government’s order revoking her Georgian citizenship. The court upheld the government’s decision in the case of Ivanishvili, who had acquired his Georgian citizenship before his French citizenship.
Opposition-linked individuals and organizations continued to report pressure on potential donors. On December 28, parliament amended the Law on Political Unions to regulate campaign and political party financing. The amended law prohibited corporate donations to political parties and provision of money, goods, or services to voters by parties; required all financial contributions to parties be made by wire transfer to ensure transparency; limited the overall amount a party can receive from public and private sources in a year to 0.2 percent of the country’s GDP; and delegated financial oversight of party financing to the government’s auditing agency, the Chamber of Control. However, local and international observers raised concerns about several amendments, including the vagueness of the criteria for determining political bribery and which individuals and organizations would be subject to the law.
Although independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, direct or indirect government influence over media outlets remained a concern. According to Transparency International Georgia’s Georgia National Integrity System Assessment for 2011, while “the country has mostly progressive and liberal laws governing the establishment and operation of media entities, in practice the media remain less transparent, accountable, and independent.” While print media frequently criticized senior government officials during the year, some individuals affiliated with newspapers reported facing pressure and intimidation for doing so. Few newspapers were commercially viable. According to Transparency International’s 2011 Georgian Advertising Market report, opposition-oriented print media struggled to attract advertisements due to limited circulation and reported government pressure on businesses. Batumelebi, an independent local newspaper in Batumi, stated that one potential advertiser cancelled after being told by government officials to do so. Patrons in politics and business typically subsidized newspapers, which were subject to their influence. Journalists reported distribution of print media was further hampered by the establishment of a new kiosk chain in Tbilisi, replacing old kiosks which primarily distributed newspapers. Licenses to rent the new kiosks were largely auctioned to companies selling fast food, cigarettes, and lottery tickets because smaller newspaper distributors could not match their bids.
Television was the most influential medium and the primary source of information on current events for more than 80 percent of the population. The three largest television broadcasters were the state-owned Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and the privately owned Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV, the country’s two most popular stations. All three reportedly had close ties to the government, generally had a progovernment editorial policy, and were the largest providers of coverage on a national level. Pro-opposition stations Kavkasia and Maestro expressed views more critical of the government, but their audience was concentrated in Tbilisi, which constituted 26 percent of the country’s population.
A December 2011 report on the Georgian advertising market by Transparency International Georgia stated “the fact that a number of key companies are controlled by relatives or close friends of current government officials or former high-level government/ruling party members raises not only questions about conflicts of interest, but also about competitiveness and political independence….” The report also noted that the head of the Georgia National Communications Commission (GNCC), charged with regulating electronic communication, owned a major advertising agency, which represented a direct conflict of interest.
There are continuing reports of the physical and verbal assault of journalists by police, confiscation of journalists’ cameras by authorities, and intimidation of journalists by government officials due to their reporting. Journalists affiliated with pro-opposition media outlets reported unequal access to government buildings, anonymous telephone threats, and surveillance by unknown people while covering stories.
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