TBILISI, GEORGIA — On Monday, Georgian voters are to elect a new parliament. In turn, that parliament is to choose a prime minister with new presidential powers.
In a rarity for much of the former Soviet Union, this is an election in which the result is not known in advance. President Mikheil Saakashvili is facing the strongest challenge since he was first elected eight years ago.
His challenger is Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man. Long known as a reclusive philanthropist, Ivanishvili is suddenly the new face in politics here.
Monday’s parliamentary elections will test whether Ivanishvili can convert his billions of dollars into millions of votes for his Georgia Dream coalition.
Keti Tsiptauri, a Tblisi primary school teacher, says she is impressed by Ivanishvili's charitable donations in Georgia.
“The first block of our university was reconstructed by Ivanishvili,” she said. “And we are grateful to him, and I want to thank to him for this.”
A competitive election would reinforce Georgia’s post-Soviet reputation as an island of democracy in an authoritarian neighborhood.
President Mikheil Saakashvili has dominated politics here since he spearheaded the 2003 Rose Revolution against fraudulent parliamentary elections.
On Friday night, he filled the nation’s largest stadium with 55,000 supporters. But unlike the spontaneous crowds of his early years, many people came on government-chartered buses from the provinces.
Outside the stadium, Nunu, a beauty shop owner who came by bus from Telavi, a provincial city, said she loves President Saakashvili, “He does everything he can,” she said. “He builds all the roads. We all love him.”
But in 2008, Georgians’ love affair with President Saakashvili was shaken when Russian troops invaded Georgia. Four years later, Russian soldiers are still garrisoned in two of Georgia’s breakaway provinces.
Last week, Saakashvili took another hit when opposition channels aired footage of Gldani prison guards beating and sodomizing prisoners. The president fired the interior minister, but protests at the prison quickly spread to the city center.
Outside the jail, Mumuku, who did not wish to provide his family name, said his son has been in the jail since April. He says he was shocked by the videos: “Supposedly, people already knew about the prison abuse for some time,” the father, a wine expert, said. "There were well-known reports about it, but no one could have imagined it was this bad.”
The jail videos inflicted a serious political blow, said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “The ruling party has not had enough time to neutralize this blow, so this blow is serious,” said Rondeli, a government supporter. “How serious, we will see with the elections.”
Angry over the prison abuse, thousands of university students swelled the ranks of Ivanishvili supporters.
On Saturday, the Ivanishvili campaign closed with a rally of about 100,000 people in the center of the capital.
With campaigning over, Georgia’s political future now is in the hands of the voters.