EXIT polls in Georgia’s presidential election indicated a big win yesterday for the candidate backed by billionaire prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, cementing his control over the US-aligned former Soviet republic.
Giorgi Margvelashvili, a former university rector with limited political experience, should get about 67 per cent of the vote, the exit polls predicted.
He will succeed Mikhail Saakashvili, who during nearly a decade in power put Georgia on the path toward democracy, but deeply angered many Georgians with what they saw as the excesses and authoritarian turn of the later years of his presidency.
His party’s candidate, former parliamentary speaker David Bakradze, was in second place with 20 per cent.
The exit polls were conducted by the market research organisation GfK and commissioned by Georgian private television station Rustavi2. Even with a convincing Margvelashvili victory, much remains uncertain.
Mr Ivanishvili has promised to step down next month and nominate a new prime minister, who is almost certain to be approved by parliament. Under Georgia’s new parliamentary system, the next prime minister will acquire many of the powers previously held by the president.
Mr Ivanishvili has not yet named his choice to lead the country. He says he intends to maintain influence over the government, although how is not entirely clear.
But his fortune, estimated at $5.3 billion (£3.3bn), gives him considerable leverage in this country of 4.5 million people with a GDP of $16bn.
Much uncertainty also hangs over Mr Saakashvili’s future. Since last year’s election and what was in effect a transfer of power, dozens of people from his team, including several former government ministers, have been hit with criminal charges and some have been jailed, including the former prime minister.
Mr Ivanishvili confirmed that Mr Saakashvili also is likely to be questioned by prosecutors once he leaves office next month.
Mr Bakradze’s clear margin over the other 21 candidates should help Mr Saakashvili’s party maintain political influence. While Mr Ivanishvili made his money in Russia and has had some success in restoring trade ties with Georgia’s hostile neighbour, he has maintained the pro-Western course set by Mr Saakashvili.
“Nobody can change this. This is the will of the Georgian people, to see their country in the EU and in Nato,” said Alexi Petriashvili, one of Mr Ivanishvili’s ministers. “The majority see the US as Georgia’s strongest strategic partner.”
If not for Washington, Georgia most likely wouldn’t have survived as an independent state, Mr Petriashvili said. He pointed to Washington’s support for the closing of Russian military bases in Georgia in 2005.
Despite the disillusionment with Mr Saakashvili in recent years, the achievements of his presidency are difficult to deny. He brought the economy out of the shadows, restored electricity supplies, eradicated a corrupt traffic police force, and laid the foundation for a democratic state. Georgia’s GDP has quadrupled since he became president after leading the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
“Yes, everyone forgot how we sat in the darkness and what kind of roads we had,” Marina Vezirishvili, 46, said after voting yesterday in Tbilisi.