Election in ex-Soviet Georgia may pave way for more diverse parliament

·3-min read

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia holds a parliamentary election on Saturday seen as a test of credibility for the ruling party and a way to form a more diversed parliament.

A fifth of Georgian territory remains under the control of pro-Russian separatists following a short war with Russia in 2008.

The country's economy was hit by the spread of the coronavirus and is now forecast by the government to contract by 4%.

A majority of polls suggest the ruling Georgian Dream party - founded and funded by the country's richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili - is leading, but it's not clear whether it will be able to get more than 40% of the votes needed to form a single-party government.

Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said he was confident of the ruling party's victory and promised to hold a free and fair election.

"I am certain that this will be a convincing victory not just for the Georgian Dream but for Georgia as well, as this will be another step forward for Georgian democracy," Gakharia told reporters earlier this week.

Opposition leaders as well as many other Georgians accuse the government of mishandling the economy and falling short of democratic standards, including brutal dispersal of protests.

The opposition says that the outcome of the upcoming poll should not set a precedent of the ruling party being elected for a third consecutive term.

"Opposition will win and it will be a decisive victory, oligarchic governance should be over," said Tina Bokuchava, a lawmaker from the opposition United National Movement (UNM), referring to Ivanishvili.

Critics accuse Ivanishvili, who does not occupy any government posts and is only Georgian Dream party head, of governing the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people behind the scenes.

More than 30 opposition parties, led by the UNM, the largest and strongest opposition force, on Friday vowed not to form a coalition government with the ruling party after the election.

Polls suggest that the distribution of 30 majoritarian seats in 150-seat parliament may play a decisive role and indicate that more diverse voices will be presented in the next parliament. Those seats are filled through voting for individual candidates in electoral districts, as opposed to party lists used for the remaining 120 seats.

Both the government and the opposition would like to see Georgia join the European Union and NATO, but such a move would be strongly resisted by Moscow. Georgian Dream also favours stronger ties with Russia.

Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, ending the nine-year rule of former president Mikheil Saakashvili's UNM.

It was the first peaceful transfer of power since the 1991 Soviet collapse and followed protests over a scandal involving the mistreatment of prison inmates and accusations that Saakashvili, who was feted in the West for his reforms, was behaving in an authoritarian manner.

Under Georgian Dream, dozens of ex-officials have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power, and some Western countries have accused the government of selectively applying justice.

Saakashvili, now a politician in Ukraine, is wanted at home on a string of charges, including corruption. He says the charges are politically motivated.

The UNM said Saakashvili would head the coalition government if the opposition wins, while he said he would take the post only for two years to conduct the most essential reforms.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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