Georgia has long been Eastern Europe’s political outlier, a land of free but angrily contested elections. Twenty-eight years ago, as communist rule was coming to an end, the Washington Post described the political environment in Tbilisi as “democracy with a vengeance.” The reporter of that article (a young David Remnick) noted that “the current multi-party election campaign in Georgia seems to have all the democratic spirit of a war between the Corleones and the Tattaglias.”

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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Georgia has evolved into a proper state since then, and its politics have grown a bit more civil—no one burns down anyone else’s party headquarters anymore—but not by much. The current hotly contested presidential election, set to go to a second round this month, shows that the Georgian public still has the freedom to exercise a democratic vote. It also shows, judging by the negative campaigning that dominated the campaign, that the country’s democracy is still laced with extreme aggression.

The winner will not actually exercise much power. Since 2012, the Georgian president has had considerably reduced constitutional powers vis-à-vis the prime minister—and the role will be further downgraded as next time, the post will be decided by an electoral college of parliamentarians and regional politicians, not by popular vote. So this year’s vote is mainly symbolic—in effect, a referendum on the ruling Georgian Dream party and its head, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is still Georgia’s wealthiest man and informal leader.

Georgian Dream swept to power in 2012 and was re-elected in 2016. It had a double appeal—poorer voters were promised jobs, while the urban middle classes wanted to reverse the increasingly authoritarian turn the country had taken in the latter years of rule by Mikheil Saakashvili. Despite several successes, such as a free trade deal and visa-free agreement with the European Union, both those groups of voters are disappointed. There has been no economic miracle, and Ivanishvili now overshadows the country in the same personally domineering manner as Saakashvili did before him.

The first round on Oct. 28 ended in a near-dead heat between Ivanishvili’s approved candidate, Salome Zurabishvili, and the leading opposition candidate, Grigol Vashadze. They picked up 38.6 percent and 37.7 percent of the vote, respectively, and only 14,000 votes divide them.

That makes Vashadze a clear favorite to win the second round. He will pick up most of the votes that went to other opposition candidates in the first round, while Zurabishvili will struggle to get more support. Giorgi Gogsadze of Tbilisi State University, a Georgian political geographer and seasoned election observer, said the mathematics simply do not work for Zurabishvili. She needs at least 250,000 more voters, he said, and it will be very hard to find them.

Zurabishvili was an odd choice for the ruling party to back. A former French citizen, she was selected by Saakashvili to be his foreign minister in 2004 but later went into opposition against him. Irascible, rather aloof, speaking less than perfect Georgian, and making aggressive comments about ethnic minorities, she has alienated a lot of voters.

Vashadze, by contrast, was a smart choice for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement. Also a former foreign minister, he exudes a much more statesmanlike demeanor and calm tone. It does not hurt either that his wife, and potential next first lady, is the much-beloved and famous ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. Vashadze got the best of both worlds in benefiting from the organizational muscle of the United National Movement while not being associated with the most toxic parts of Saakashvili’s legacy.

Yet to concentrate on the personalities is mostly to miss the point. This was an election that continued the Georgian tradition of vicious negative campaigning and was more about “voting against” than “voting for.” Somehow, for example, both sides managed to play the Russia card to try to discredit each other. Opponents of Zurabishvili seized on her statements that the Georgian side had started the August 2008 war with Moscow to call her a stooge of the Kremlin. (She is, of course, technically correct, but to say so in public is bad form.) In the second round of the campaign, street posters are now implausibly accusing Vashadze of being a KGB agent and supporter of Putin because he used to be a Russian citizen and had a Soviet government career (something that is quite standard for anyone of his generation in Georgia.

The big vote for Vashadze was a strong rejection of Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili. The party is suddenly in trouble for the first time since 2012, and the opposition is revitalized. Ivanishvili has lost the sky-high ratings he had back in 2012. He basically flouted the pledge he had made to quit politics. First, despite being officially retired, he pulled strings from behind the scenes, and then this year he returned as party leader of Georgian Dream and has been highly visible during the election campaign. As one Georgian said, “I don’t like Vashadze. I voted for him but only to tell Ivanishvili he is not the main man.”

The grudge match between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, which has continued unabated for the past six years, will now color the next round of campaigning. Ivanishvili continues to rail against the abuses of the Saakashvili years more than he talks about his own achievements. Georgian Dream politicians are now raising the specter of civil war if Vashadze were to become president. Saakashvili himself, now in exile in the Netherlands, still fulminates furiously against the new regime, with Facebook now his preferred megaphone.

To become a more normal and boring democracy, Georgia would benefit from having a third force not tied to either of its big political titans. It is disappointing that the third candidate in this election (David Bakradze, also, bizarrely, a former foreign minister) polled under 11 percent of the vote. For now, Georgians will have to content themselves with the thought that their democracy is still alive and well—if very angry.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy.