Georgia’s presidential election has moved to a second round, which is not a bad thing. International and domestic observers are citing the split election as evidence of Georgia’s democratic progression. In the lead up to the country’s last direct presidential election, Georgians had 25 candidates from which to choose, a fact that stimulated much dialogue in a region many fear is starved of proper democratic development.

As part of the remedy, Georgia has been moving toward an increasingly representative, parliamentary system, with the presidential office wielding significantly less power. In 2024, when the next presidential election is to be held, a newly-established 300-member electoral college will choose the president, rather than the Georgian people.

The current 2018 election is largely seen as an informal popularity referendum on the Georgian Dream party of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, much as the 2012 election—in which Georgian Dream came to power—was a measure of the success of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party. The standoff between the two candidates is a welcoming sign, showing that no party has a sweeping majority, something critics earlier warned could be a sign of democratic backsliding in Georgia.

Georgian presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili (Photograph by sovanews)

Georgian presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili (Photograph by sovanews)

In the second round, scheduled to be held by December 1, Georgian Dream-backed candidate Salome Zurabishvili, currently an independent member of Georgian parliament, will face UNM candidate Grigol Vashadze, a longtime Saakashvili ally and former foreign minister. In the first round, held October 28,  Zurabishvili emerged with a slight edge over Vashadze, winning 38.6% of the vote to his 37.7%.

The two are well-matched. Zurabishvili, a born to Georgian-emigre parents in France, is powerful but has made several PR missteps over the years of her political career in Georgia. Nevertheless, she is well connected in Georgian society and politics. Were Zurabishvili to win, she would be the first woman elected to the position of president in Georgia. But her loss would represent a slippage of Georgian Dream out of Georgian popular opinion.

Vashadze, meanwhile, is a holdover from the Saakashvili era, which has been an asset and a cost to his campaign. He is respected, and seen as an safe choice, but some are still wary of his old ties to UNM. Indeed, in the final weeks leading up to the election, both parties resorted to smear tactics and dramatic accusations to mar the other.

Were Vashadze to win, it would give UNM a second chance to define itself, towards or away from Saakashvili’s legacy.  Importantly, the candidate who came in third with 10.9%, David Bakradze, has thrown his support behind Vashadze, the UNM candidate. But presented with only two candidates, both from the mainstream parties, Georgians must decide whether they are ready to embark on a path back to UNM or stay with Georgian Dream. It will be a fierce fight.