Georgia has elected its first woman president. In a runoff election, the French-born Salome Zurabishvili, backed by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party, won 59% of the vote, while the opposition candidate, Grigol Vashadze, received 40% of votes. The outcome of the second round, which took place in a particularly venomous campaign of mudslinging, protest, and cries of foul from both sides, was somewhat surprising after the close results the candidates received last month, in which Zurabishvili won 39% to Vashadze’s 38%.
The election was a proxy mandate for the Georgian Dream party, founded and run by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire Georgian closely tied to Russia and a key political rival of Georgia’s former President Saakashvili. In 2012, Georgian Dream pushed Saakashvili’s United National Movement out of parliament, and a year later, out of the presidency. The two men have sparred in the shadows ever since, breeding bitter feelings of resentment about the direction of Georgia’s future. Experts saw the election as the continuation of the feud between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. The Georgian opposition and international election observers have indicated the election was conducted unfairly. Meanwhile, results show that Georgia is following the trend of intense polarization seen in western democracies, with many Georgians reporting that neither party or candidate represents the needs of the country accurately.
After her win, Zurabishvili has sought to distance herself from Georgian Dream, acknowledging as president she will need to cooperate with the ruling party, but that she has her own principles and her own “red lines” to observe. In her remarks, the president-elect stressed the importance of national unity and dialogue with those who had not voted for her. Zurabishvili served as a French diplomat before accepting the position of Georgian foreign minister under former President Saakashvili, the founder of UNM and rival to the current ruling party and Zurbishvili’s base, Georgian Dream. The influence of both parties is apparent in the Georgian president-elect. In interviews following her victory, Zurabishvili set forth her two policy goals: to unify Georgian society and to secure Georgia to NATO and the European Union. In line with this policy, she announced that her first foreign visit will be to Brussels, followed by Berlin, Paris, and the Baltic capitals. During the election campaign, Zurabishvili was cast as more pro-Russian than her opponent, Vashadze, also a former foreign minister under Saakashvili. Though Zurabishvili has mentioned normalizing relations between the two countries, in post-election talks, she has firmly held by Georgia’s pro-Western stance and stated her reluctance to cooperate with Russia if Moscow refuses to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The orientation of the new Georgian president is important in the former Soviet republic, a NATO and EU aspirant, and a small country concerned of the influence of its powerful neighbor to the north. Throughout a wary 10-year stalemate following war over the breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The runoff election comes within the same week as Russia’s seizure of several Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov, and some have suggested the timing of this move by Russia is no coincidence.
Changes to the Georgian Constitution make this the last presidential election decided by direct popular vote. The country has taken steps to increase the power of the parliament, and future elections will be decided by delegate representation. Additionally, the position of the president has also been hollowed out, leaving Zurabishvili to fill a mostly figurehead role, and placing the majority of the country’s power in the prime minister instead. The victory is an important indication of the mood of the country and whether Georgia will stay on its current Georgian Dream track into the 2020 parliamentary elections. For now, stability reigns and Ivanishvili’s party maintains the executive.