Georgia election: Bitter political feud obscures poverty

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Media captionThe BBC's Rayhan Demytrie has been trying to find out why many voters are undecided

A long-running feud between two political heavyweights has left many Georgians weary about Saturday's parliamentary election, as poverty, unemployment and debt blight their lives.

Mikheil Saakashvili, one of the duellists, is not even physically in the country. Now a politician in exile in Ukraine, he is famous for having lost a war against Russia while he was president in 2008.

His rival, billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, is not officially involved in politics.

Georgian voters are being offered a great choice of parties, and all of them are promising a better life. But the two parties that the billionaire and the exiled ex-president represent are the main contenders.

Image caption A recent survey suggested more than half of Georgians were undecided about who to vote for

"We are in great need, our pensions are too low," says Nana Kotetishvili, as she queues with her husband for free food given to the poor in central Tbilisi.

"Do you know our great poet Vazha-Pshavela? My husband is the author of his biography, my husband is a well-known writer, holds a doctorate in philology - and look at us now.

An opinion poll published on 29 July by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) indicated that 57% of the electorate were undecided.

The same poll suggested that Mr Ivanishvili's ruling Georgian Dream coalition and Mr Saakashvili's opposition United National Movement were well ahead of the field.

Image caption Mikheil Saakashvili had to address crowds via video link from Ukraine as he is in exile

Georgia country profile

Mr Saakashvili addressed thousands of supporters this week via a video-link from Ukraine, and promised to return home.

His party lost the 2012 parliamentary elections. He was stripped of his citizenship last year and is wanted in Georgia on a number of criminal charges.

"We are three days away from the victory. In three days the experiment of one Russian oligarch will be over once and for all in Georgia," he said.

He was, of course, referring to rival Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in early 1990s. Mr Ivanishvili has been campaigning for Georgian Dream, the party he founded, and was previously prime minister.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has long-standing business links with Russia

Stronger ties with EU

On TV recently Mr Ivanishvili said his party had overseen real progress in the ex-Soviet Caucasus republic.

"We created 60,000 jobs. We have strong ties with the US. Europe is very impressed by all the reforms that we've introduced."

In July an EU-Georgia Association Agreement came into force, offering free trade advantages for Georgia. The country has also come close to being granted visa-free travel to the Schengen zone, which covers most of Europe.

But Mr Ivanishvili has also indulged in negative campaigning.

He financed a TV series aimed at discrediting his opponents, including the former first lady, Dutch-born Sandra Roelofs, who is running for parliament while her husband campaigns via video-link.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Dutch-born Sandra Roelofs, wife of Mr Saakashvili, is running for a parliamentary seat

Ms Roelofs dismissed the ex-prime minister's tactics as "ideological intoxication".

"My husband is in exile and he cannot be here to defend his views. But it does not mean that I am a surrogate. I see myself as a separate person, somebody who has her own views on health issues, social issues, gender equality."

Celebrity opera singer

For voters tired of the two-party rivalry there are plenty of alternatives, including the newly established State for People bloc, founded by world-famous opera singer Paata Burchuladze.

"I left my celebrity career because the situation in Georgia is critical. Never in my life have I seen so many poor people. Our country is like a ship on the ocean without an anchor - we have no direction," he said.

Image caption Opera singer-turned-politician Paata Burchuladze warns that the situation in Georgia is critical

Raising pensions and better social welfare have been popular campaign themes in this election. And pensioners in particular would welcome an improvement in their lives.

"Most pensioners borrow products from local shops," says Nana Kotetishvili. "They keep a tab and we pay them back at the end of the month when we receive our pensions."

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