Stakes high in Georgia elections

Many feel they have paid too high a price for Saakashvili’s reforms, including the eradication of petty corruption.

The stakes are high for Monday’s vote.

This is probably the greatest political challenge President Saakashvili and his government have faced.

Today I saw plenty of government and opposition supporters’ cars zipping around Tbilisi, the capital, honking horns with passengers hanging precariously out of the windows waving flags: blue for the opposition bloc Georgian Dream, while Saakashvili’s United National Movement has co-opted the national flag.

And Sunday was supposed to be a ‘quiet day’ of no campaigning.

Many Georgians feel they have paid too high a price for Saakashvili’s reforms, which have included the astonishing virtual eradication of petty corruption.

To give one example, police throughout the former Soviet Union still enjoy shaking down drivers.

But not in Georgia.

To achieve this, the government had to be ruthless in its dismissal of corrupt public officials – but it may have gone overboard.

Anecdotally – many people I’ve spoken to in Tbilisi say they’ve had enough of President Saakashivili.

But the capital has traditionally been anti-Saakashvili.

He is unpopular among a large class of ex-policemen and bureaucrats who lost their livelihoods.

Old taxi drivers also do not identify with Saakashvili’s Georgia.

Among his most vocal critics are the Tbilisi intelligentsia.

As one supporter of the positive changes Saakashvili has brought about in Georgian society bitterly put it – “writers and bohemians who puff cigarettes in the street cafes and talk about how much they miss freedom.”

And then the prison video scandal. The brutality meted out to inmates – many of them appear to be young lads – may have galvanised another constituency in Georgian society – students, although they are not necessarily aligned with the political opposition.

This is not a presidential election. But it feels a bit like one.

“We need another 10 years of a less flamboyant leader but someone who keeps the country on the same course”, a Georgian friend told me.

Based on that analysis, the ascendant Georgian Dream’s financier and leader Bidzina Ivanishvilli, a tycoon who keeps zebras and whose albino son raps at his rallies, hardly fits the description.

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