Georgia Billionaire Seeks Third Election Win Amid Currency Woe

Georgians will elect a new parliament Saturday with the ruling party founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili seeking a third successive victory even as it contends with a slump in the currency and a resurgent coronavirus epidemic.

Ivanishili’s Georgian Dream leads the main opposition movement, according to opinion polls, under areformed electoral system that promises to expand representation for minority parties. A record 50 parties and electoral blocs are competing for the 150 seats with the threshold for entering parliament lowered to 1% of votes.

In a rerun of the 2012 vote that brought Georgian Dream to power, the United National Movement and United Opposition blochas nominated former President Mikheil Saakashvili as its candidate for prime minister if it wins. Ivanishvili, Georgia’s wealthiest person, formed his party to defeat Saakashvili, who’s in exile after the government charged him with abuse of power.

While officials in the Caucasus nation have won praise for combating the spread of coronavirus, with far fewer cases reported than in neighboring states, Georgia’s economy has been hit hard by the epidemic. The central bank forecasts gross domestic product will decline 5% this year before rebounding in 2021, while the lari fell to a record-low 3.5 per dollar in March as tourism income dwindled amidlockdown restrictions. The currency has declined more than 11% so far this year.

Resist Lockdown

With Covid-19 cases and deaths rising again this month, the government has said it will resist a return to lockdown measures to protect the economy, while urging Georgians to wear masks and observe social distancing rules. Fighting that erupted Sept. 27 between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is adding to regional turmoil.

Under the revised system, 120 seats in parliament will be allocated by party list under proportional representation, compared to 77 currently, while 30 will be decided by majority vote, down from 73 now. Georgian Dream had 36% support compared to 15% for the UNM and United Opposition with 23% undecided in an August poll of 1,500 voters by the International Republican Institute.

The Central Election Commission has organized mobile voting groups to help people in isolation cast their ballots and keep the epidemic from hurting turnout.

Ivanishvili said in an Oct. 8 statement that Georgian Dream was “winning confidently” and expects as much as 60% support in the election.

Whoever wins, the economic decline and the effort to defeat the epidemic means “we are facing a very bumpy road ahead,” Giorgi Kadagidze, Georgia’s central bank governor from 2009-2016, said by phone.

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