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End of a political era in Georgia

After 10 years in office, Georgia's outgoing president Mikhail Saakashvili leaves a mixed political legacy. But Sunday's presidential election will bring political change in more ways than one.

Georgia went to the polls on Sunday (27.10.2013) to elect a successor to the current president Mikhail Saakashvili. After serving two terms, Saakashvili was no longer eligible to stand for another.

His departure is the end of an era in his country. Hardly anyone has changed Georgia as much as Saakashvili. When he was elected 10 years ago he was the hero of the Rose Revolution. This movement, which took place a year before Ukraine's Orange Revolution, made Georgia the first former Soviet republic where popular protests led to a change in leadership.

At the time, demonstrations erupted after the ruling party was accused of electoral fraud in parliamentary elections in early November 2003. Three weeks later, Saakashvili and other opposition leaders forced the then president Eduard Shevardnadze to resign. They chased him out of parliament, armed only with roses. In January 2004, Saakashvili won an early presidential election and began to bring change to Georgia, a country that has been trying to westernize ever since.

A police station in Tbilisi (Photo: Amalia Oganjanyan / DW)

This police station in Tbilisi was built with a glass facade to symbolize transparency

Looking westward

The changes Saakashvili made are still evident in Georgian society today. He took a particularly radical step in firing the old administration and hiring new, young officials. Even his harshest critics credit him with eradicating corruption in the police force.

In recent years, Georgia has become foreigner-friendly, with street names and signs on public buildings marked in both Georgian and English. Russian, on the other hand, has all but vanished from everyday life. When it comes to foreign policy, Saakashvili has also kept his distance from neighboring Russia, and has instead relied increasingly on the United States, which was, for example, instrumental in reforming the Georgian army.

Fading hopes

Initially the West praised the reforms taking place in Georgia. But over time accusations increased, as Saakashvili's style of rule became more and more authoritarian.

After Georgia lost the war against Russia over the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia in August 2008, Saakashvili's ratings sank significantly. Only 25 percent of the Georgian population currently approve of his policies, according to a survey carried out in spring 2013 on behalf of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an American non-governmental organization.

Giorgi Margvelashvili (Photo: Amalia Oganjanyan / DW)

Giorgi Margvelashvili hopes to be Georgia's new president

It became clear that Saakashvili's political career was coming to an end a year ago when his party, the United National Movement, lost its majority in the parliamentary elections in October 2012. The winners of the election were the recently established opposition party Georgian Dream, founded by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is the country's current prime minister.

A changing political landscape

Exit polls indicate a clear victory for Georgian Dream's Giorgi Margvelashvili, who until recently was serving as education minister in Ivanishvili's government.

A victory for Margvelashvili could put an end to the so-called 'cohabitation' that currently exists under Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. A cohabitation is a political situation - such as often occurs in the French political system - in which a country's president and prime minister are from different political parties.

With more than 50 percent of the vote, Margvelashvili will be able to avoid a run-off election. David Bakradze, from Saakashvili's party, and Nino Burjanadze, the former chairperson of the parliament, also stood in the elections, alongside 21 other candidates.

The new Georgian president will have less power than the old president has done. This is because a constitutional reform will be coming into effect that transfers some of the president's powers to the prime minister.

Georgia's Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (Photo: Amalia Oganjanyan / DW)

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili hasn't ruled out the possibility that Saakashvili may be prosecuted

Will Saakashvili face trial?

Now all eyes are on Mikhail Saakashvili's post-election fate. Some people in Ivanishvili's government have been calling for judicial proceedings against the outgoing president for his suppression of anti-government protests in 2007.

Some prominent representatives of the United National Party are already in prison. The former prime minister and general secretary of Saakashvili's party, Vano Merabishvili, has been in pre-trial detention since May, facing allegations of corruption. A former defense minister is also behind bars.

According to Saakashvili, the persecution of his party colleagues is politically motivated. The European Union has also expressed concern about the detentions.

After the presidential election, there will also be another significant change on the Georgian political scene. Prime Minister Ivanishvili has announced that he plans to leave politics. He has said that he wants to step down at the end of November, a week before the inauguration of the new president-elect.

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