Georgian parliamentary elections marred by scandals and antigovernment rallies

On Monday, Georgians voted in parliamentary elections in which President Saakashvili’s United National Movement is challenged by an opposition coalition. The elections have already been marred by a series of corruption and prison abuse scandals.

­The polls are crucial for the United National Movement, winner of the May 2008 elections, which is facing a tough contest with the opposition Georgian Dream coalition.

The ruling party suffered blows to its public image and popularity when its pre-election campaign was marred by a series of scandals, with President Saakashvili hit by allegations of corruption and a prison abuse scandal.

On September 29, nearly 200,000 people took to the streets of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi for the largest rally in the city’s history. The crowds expressed support for the opposition coalition and chanted anti-Saakashvili slogans.

The demonstrations came in response to a torture scandal two weeks ago, where two of Georgia’s opposition TV stations released a graphic video showing prison officers abusing and raping inmates. The report alleged the atrocities were committed against political enemies of Saakashvili.

The scandal sparked harsh debate between the presidential contenders, with each side accusing the other of provocations in the run up to the elections.

The Georgian Dream party was founded as a public movement in December 2011 by tycoon-turned-politician Ivanishvili. In April 2012, it morphed into an opposition coalition called Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia. The coalition’s main platform aims to vote out the ruling United National Movement, founded by Mikhail Saakashvili in October 2001. In May 2008, Saakashvili’s party won that year’s election and secured a majority in the country’s parliament.

Monday’s election sets in motion a fundamental change in Georgia’s government. Under constitutional changes approved in 2010, the prime minister will gain additional powers to rival those of the president.

The prime minister will no longer be tasked primarily with economic matters, and will have the power to name cabinet members, including the ministers of the interior and defense, and to shape policy. The president, however, will remain commander-in-chief of the military.

These changes go into effect after the January 2013 presidential election – after President Saakashvili's second and final term ends next year, the party that holds a majority in parliament will name the prime minister.