Salome Zurabishvili has won the presidential elections in Georgia. The country has elected the first woman president in its history. The preliminary results of the second round were announced on November 29. The French-born former diplomat won 59 percent of the votes against her rival Grigol Vashadze, who managed only 40 percent. Zurabishvili, 66, was supported by the Georgian Dream party. She was born in Paris following her parents’ escape from Georgia in 1921, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union.
Zurabishvili's election and the future of the country
“I was elected by a society that wants more Europe,” declared Zurabishvili after the vote. “Our choice is a peaceful Georgia, a united country of equal citizens,” she added. “We will enter into dialog with those parts of Georgian society who didn’t vote for me and who don't agree with us,” she concluded when the results were announced.
Zurabishvili was appointed French ambassador to Georgia in 2003. Since 1974, she has held positions for the French Foreign Ministry at the United Nations, in Rome, Brussels and Washington. Between 2001 and 2003, she headed the strategic and international issues division of the French General Defense Secretariat. Between 2004 and 2005, she held the post of Georgian Foreign Minister during the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili.
Salome Zurabishvili’s election result exceed all expectations. Georgia’s new president won 20 percent more votes than in the first round. Despite this, Georgian voters remain deeply divided on many issues touched upon during the election campaign. In particular, a bitter controversy was caused by Zurabishvili’s statement that Georgia started the war with Russia in 2008, after which bilateral relations between Tbilisi and Moscow became complex. “Considering the Russian attitude in Ukraine, I do not believe we can start a cooperation (with Russia, ed) at the moment,” said Zubarishvili.
The vote has also strengthened the Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who funded the Georgian Dream’s electron campaign. The opposition criticized the voting operations, denouncing irregularities and attacks on minority party supporters. All the accusations have been refuted by Zurabishvili’s party.
According to international observers, the election took place in an “unbalanced context”. In particular, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCD) defined the election process as “weak”, admitting that one side benefited from an “undue advantage”. However, the OSCE added that polling took place in a context of “electoral competition in which candidates were able to express themselves freely.”
Election campaign and new institutional structures
The defeated opposition leader, Grigol Vashadze, the country’s former Foreign Affairs Minister between 2008 and 2012, promised in the election campaign that he would focus on achieving peaceful control of the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, tried to reclaim sovereignty of South Ossetia after the war with Russia, following which Georgia lost control of the provinces.
Discussions took place during the election campaigns about the reforms needed for Georgia to become a member of the European Union and Nato, economic and financial reforms and fighting poverty. After the polls closed, Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze congratulated Georgian citizens. According to Bakhtadze, voting was carried out in a "peaceful, free and democratic environment”. Similar appeals for unity were made by the outgoing president Giorgi Margvelashvili. In recent years, presidential powers have been gradually reduced, with a greater role being assigned to the Prime Minister and the government. However, the President of the Republic continues to act as a mediator and to hold powers of representation in foreign policy. This was the first direct election to the presidency. In 2017, a constitutional established that at the end of this last presidential mandate, future presidents of the Republic will be elected by an Electoral College of 300 members of parliament and regional representatives.
The Georgian vote will go down in history for electing the first woman president. This is the last time Georgian electors will vote directly for the president before the constitutional reform approved last year transfers that power to the parliament. These elections are also a potential indicator of the results of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2020. Georgia would like to join Nato and the European Union. However, both aims appear difficult to achieve given the presence of Russian troops in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following their secession from the country.