Georgia’s opposition is struggling to find a champion to face President Mikheil Saakashvili in snap elections, in spite of the candidacy of Badri Patarkatsishvili, one of Georgia’s richest businessmen.
Over the weekend Mr Patarkatsishvili announced he would challenge Mr Saakashvili in the January 5 election. But leaders of a loose opposition of 10 parties have said they would not support the businessman – a tycoon close to the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. The opposition instead pledged to produce its own candidate.
Following last week’s unrest, which led to a military crackdown and state of emergency being imposed, Mr Saakashvili announced he would seek a fresh mandate by holding early presidential elections.
The move temporarily defused Georgia’s deepest political crisis since the 2003 Rose Revolution, which lifted the president to power. But the violent crackdown sparked a public outcry and drew criticism from western governments – previous supporters of Mr Saakashvili.
If the opposition remains divided, Mr Saakashvili may hold on to power. However, Mr Patarkatsishvili said he could withdraw his candidacy in favour of a candidate who was able “to defeat the Saakashvili regime”.
In his four-year presidency, Mr Saakashvili has cut down on corruption, attracted record amounts of investment and sparked steady economic growth. But his popularity has plummeted as many residents struggle with low living standards, especially in rural regions.
“My pension is $26 per month. This is not enough to buy bread once a day and less than what I need to pay for my diabetes medication each month,” said Svetlana, a 66-year-old pensioner living in the Gurjaani region.
Mr Saakashvili’s strong-armed foreign policy tactics with Moscow, which has backed separatist regions in Georgia, have spiralled into a trade war. Exports of wine, mineral water and other goods that traditionally have strong sales in Russia have been blocked.
“We all supported Saakashvili years ago, but he has done nothing for us,” said Eldari, an elderly man in Gurjaani. “There are no clear alternative candidates. I might vote for Patarkatsishvili.”
Mr Patarkatsishvili has questioned Mr Saakashvili’s pro-western foreign policy, calling for improved relations with Russia.
Giga Bokeria, a lawmaker and close associate of Mr Saakashvili, has accused Mr Patarkatsishvili of plotting with the Kremlin to overthrow Georgia’s pro-western leadership. Russia has denied involvement.
With a probe launched against him, it remains unclear if Mr Patarkatsishvili will be able to campaign or run for the presidency. He is also wanted by Russian authorities, but Mr Bokeria said a deal could have been struck in return for toppling Mr Saakashvili.
Mr Bokeria said the Imedi television channel, shut down by authorities, was de facto “managed by Patarkatsishvili” and deliberately encouraged Georgians to topple Mr Saakashvili. Imedi denied these allegations.