The opposition Georgian Dream coalition appears likely to win a substantial percentage of the vote. A sensational scandal about torture in state prisons, broken two weeks ago by a television station Ivanishvili controls, has reduced the government’s lead in its own polls from more than 20 points to single digits. Saakashvili’s campaigners admit they are likely to lose the popular vote in the capital, the center of political life in a country of under 5 million people.
In theory, this could be a great thing — the introduction of real checks and balances on a government that has done an impressive job fighting corruption and modernizing the economy but less so in building democratic institutions. With constitutional reforms due to shift political power from the president to parliament after Saakashvili leaves office next year, a parliament where a ruling party faces a strong, legal and independent opposition would sharply distinguish Georgia from most other post-Soviet states — starting with Russia.
The problem is that neither side in this Caucasian standoff has been willing to play entirely by democratic rules. Saakashvili, who at 44 has lost none of the brashness that has made him a controversial figure in the West — and a nemesis of Putin — responded to Ivanishvili’s challenge by stripping him of his citizenship, putting pressure on a Georgian bank he owned and pushing through a campaign finance law aimed at limiting how much he could spend. The billionaire was eventually fined $45 million for making illegal campaign contributions.
Ivanishvili, for his part, has conducted an eccentric campaign, passing up free air time on the state television channel and sitting out a televised debate while spending a reported $600,000 a month on Washington lobbyists. His operation publicizes polls showing him with a wildly improbable lead — 62 to 25 percent at last report — while the candidate declares that any other result will be proof of fraud. Ivanishvili-funded observers and quick counters are poised to back up this story; international monitors fear that if the official results show a government victory, Ivanishvili will summon his supporters to the streets in an attempt to trigger another popular revolution.
In a meeting Sunday at his palatial, glass-walled mansion overlooking Tbilisi with a group of journalists I joined, brought here by the German Marshall Fund, Ivanishvili insisted he had no intention of provoking such unrest. If a government election victory was endorsed by international monitors such as the U.S. National Democratic Institute, he said, he would accept the result and his party would take its seats in parliament. “We have no problem taking the role of opposition,” he said.