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Presidential Election - October 2018

The ruling Georgia Dream party won the local elections held on 21 October 2017 by a landslide. Led by ex-football star Kakha Kaladze, who is now the new mayor of Tbilisi, Georgian Dream candidates won most of the mayoral seats in the countrys six largest cities with an unequivocal 50% or more of the votes.

These elections followed a campaign largely devoid of meaningful competition. The playing field was uneven, with the ruling GD receiving approximately 90 percent of all campaign donations and enjoying the greatest media visibility, including coverage of government achievements and events. In contrast, opposition parties faced a lack of resources and significantly lower visibility and reach.

A sense of resignation pervaded their campaigns. Opposition parties and nonpartisan domestic observers describe the reasons for disparities as the pressure on potential opposition donors and the misuse of state administrative resources, while the ruling party maintains that they were simply better organized, more effective at fundraising, and had a more compelling vision. Regardless, such an imbalance, combined with a lack of extensive policy messages and debates in most of the country, hindered a real contest of ideas and values. The outcome was widely viewed as a foregone conclusion by many contestants and civil society organizations.

Georgia appeared to have reinforced governance marked by one partys dominance at all levels of elected office. This has characterized successive Georgian governments since independence and poses a challenge to democratic governance going forward. With the further consolidation of power in one party, prospects for vibrant and pluralistic democracy were at risk. Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and his restructured government survived a confidence vote in parliament. A total of 103 lawmakers supported the government in the 21 December 2017 vote, while 17 voted against. The confidence vote was needed due to amendments to the law on the governments structure that were adopted in November. The amendments cut the number of ministries from 18 to 14.

After the announcement that two new factions will be established within Georgian Dream's parliament majority, parliamentary chairman Irakli Kobakhidze rejected on 16 December 2017 as unfounded speculation that it reflected internal disagreements within the majority. Kobakhidze said discussions on establishing the new factions had begun prior to the end of the autumn parliament session, and that the objective was to improve internal management and coordination. At present the majority comprises five small factions of five-to-six people, several of which (the Industrialists, the Conservatives) represent parties that aligned with Georgian Dream to contest the 2012 parliamentary election, plus an 86-member Georgian Dream faction headed by Mamuka Mdinaradze, who described that numerical disparity as "not the best foundation for management."

The countrys democracy struggled with a weak checks and balances, doubts about judicial independence, and challenges in the media environment. Opposition parties of disparate ideologies have issued joint statements registering their concerns about these issues and the overall state of democratic governance. For its part, the government has acknowledged the need for further reform in several areas, but in carrying out its efforts to date has neglected to secure broad-based consensus.

Georgians voted in presidential elections on 28 October 2018, with two former foreign ministers as the frontrunners for the largely ceremonial office. The election was seen as a crucial test for the increasingly unpopular Georgian Dream party and will be the last in which the president is selected by popular vote. In the future, presidents will be picked by an electoral college of 300 legislators and regional officials.

French-born Salome Zurabishvili was projected to be elected with 52.3 percent of votes, according to the exit polls funded by the ruling Georgian Dream party that was backing her, with anti-corruption Grigol Vashadze of the main opposition party expected to secure only 28.1 percent. Her unsteady command of the Georgian language, which she speaks with an accent, was also frequently derided by her critics.

Seen as the main opponent to Zurabishvili, Vashadze is running on behalf of a recently-formed platform of 11 opposition parties led by Saakashvili. Like Zurabishvili, Vashadze, 60, also served as Georgia's foreign minister. His candidacy has been boosted by growing popular discontent over the government's failure to tackle poverty and during his campaign Vashadze has frequently condemned official corruption and alleged political meddling in the judiciary. He has also criticised the "informal oligarch rule" of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire leader of the Georgian Dream party and the country's richest man, who stepped down as president in 2013 after just a year in office but who is widely believed to rule the country from behind the scenes.

Fifty percent plus one vote is needed to win the first round. The speaker of the parliament from the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, said at a news conference that the results from 1,000 polling stations suggested that there would be a second round. Should the vote go to a runoff, a second round would be held before December 1.

The vote was considered a prelude to the decisive standoff between the ruling and opposition parties in parliamentary polls scheduled for 2020.

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