29 November, 2018 10:52

Georgian Ruling Party Secures Presidency After Massive Debt Pay Off

By Emil Sanamyan

58 to 42 percent is the preliminary outcome of Georgian presidential election run-off held on November 28, giving the ruling party-backed Salome Zurabishvili a victory over challenger Grigol Vashadze. The vote came a week after a charity of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire head of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, pledged to pay off roughly $500 million in debt held by some 600,000 Georgians.

Zurabishvili’s landslide followed a tightly contested first round of voting a month earlier that left the two top contenders at about 600,000 votes each. The substantial higher turnout in the runoff that the ruling party managed to mobilize had Zurabishvili gaining more than 500,000 additional voters. Vashadze, who was also backed by the third place finisher, gained only about 170,000 votes.

Though exit polls sponsored by both campaigns showed Zurabishvili with an advantage, the Vashadze campaign has so far refused to admit defeat and congratulate the winner. The debt payoff, in particular, has been seen by many as amounting to a massive pre-election bribe by the ruling party.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the ex-president who lives in exile in the Netherlands but remains influential in the United National Movement that backed Vashadze, has already called for a civil disobedience campaign. Vashadze himself does not appear eager to heed the call, however, and said that he and his supporters would hold an assembly, “to decide their post-runoff strategy.”

Zurabishvili, 66, becomes the first female to be elected president of Georgia, though under parliamentary system her powers will be much curtailed compared to her male predecessors. Born in Paris, Zurabishvili was France’s ambassador to Georgia, before joining the Georgian government as foreign minister in 2004-5, under Saakashvili. Zurabishvili then established an opposition party, The Way of Georgia, which she led until 2010. More recently, Zurabishvili worked for the United Nations, before returning to Georgian politics and getting elected to parliament in 2016.