Presidential election kicks off in Georgia

Polls have opened in Georgia, where people are set to vote for a new president. The country's government has given assurances the vote will be free and fair, despite fraud allegations from the opposition. More than a thousand foreign observers are set to

Surprising return

After a hard-fought campaign, Georgia is set to go to the polls to decide who will be its next president.

One of their potential choices is billionaire oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili. The media mogul had earlier pulled out of the race after the government released video-tape footage allegedly showing him plotting to stage unrest in the days following the election. He was accused of using his TV channel, Imedi, to aid a coup attempt.

Badri Patarkatsishvili
Badri Patarkatsishvili

On Thursday he announced he would be competing after all:

“I have decided not to withdraw my candidacy and to carry on fighting to become president of Georgia and fighting to make Georgia a truly democratic country”.

The billionaire’s sudden u-turn has come as a surprise and has led to the resignation of some of his aides.

Local watchdog groups had been calling for the county's central electoral commission to disallow Patarkatsishvili from standing. They say the tycoon, along with the election favourite, ex-president Mikhail Saakashvili, had been attempting to bribe voters.

In a press conference on Wednesday, they pointed to other problems with the campaign saying these elections contain more violations and less transparency with regard to public funds.

Media under pressure

The Georgian media's been at the heart of a bitter political tussle in the run-up to the January 5 poll.

Mikhail Saakashvili
Mikhail Saakashvili

Ex-president Mikhail Saakashvili called the snap election after police clashed with demonstrators in Tbilisi on November 7. Journalists found themselves caught up in the violence. Saakashvili then had to leave his post in temporary control of Parliament Speaker, Nino Burdzhanadze, in order to participate in the election.

Following the disturbances, special forces raided and shut down the opposition TV channel, Imedi, which the authorities said was airing calls to stage a coup. During the crisis, government representatives had harsh words for the channel's journalists.

The channel subsequently reopened, but within two months later, the authorities produced evidence implicating Imedi's founder and co-owner Patarkatsishvili in a plot to overthrow the government in the days following the election.

Dozens of journalists quit the channel and its management decided to take it off the air once again.

This leaves Georgia with three major TV stations remaining on air. The opposition alleges they are all subject to a pro-government bias. United opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze has more than once lashed out at journalists from these stations and has even ordered them to leave his press conferences.

Authorities promise fully democratic vote

The authorities have brushed these issues aside. They say the elections will be fully democratic, and promise they are doing everything possible to prevent possible vote fraud.

“We will react to any violations committed by any side, be they ordinary citizens, civil servants or representatives of political parties. We will investigate and we will call the perpetrators to account according to the criminal code of Georgia,” assured Nika Gavaramia, Deputy Prosecutor General.

More than a thousand election observers will monitor the vote. They will make their findings public on January 6. Other measures to prevent electoral fraud include spraying each voter's right thumb with an ultra-violet sensitive dye.

Although local observers have highlighted some problems with the campaign and the Patarkatsishvili scandal shows no sign of abating, the Georgian authorities hope that measures like this will ensure that the elections themselves are spotless.