First Past the Post: October 2

Justin Trudeau officially launched his campaign for leadership of the Liberal Party today in Canada. (See prior coverage here).

German media respond to the naming of Peer Steinbrück as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in 2013.

The Diplomat wonders if the Chinese system is in for a 1991 Soviet-style collapse.

Former German foreign minister and Green party leader Joschka Fischer discusses the European crisis.

Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech to his party conference in Manchester with an attempt to steal Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ theme from the Tories.

The latest on the Greek government’s talks with the ‘troika.’



Who is Bidzina Ivanishvili?

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of what appears to be the winning coalition in Georgia’s parliamentary election yesterday, is Georgia’s wealthiest man, with an alleged net worth of $6.4 billion, but until he formed his opposition group last year, however, Ivanishvili was not an incredibly well-known public figure.

Now, however, as the head of what is expected to be the largest group in Georgia’s parliament, the Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia party (k’art’uli ots’neba–demokratiuli sak’art’velo, ქართული ოცნება–დემოკრატიული საქართველო), Ivanishvili (pictured above) is set to become the most important political player in Georgia.

Diplomats from Brussels to Berlin and from Moscow to Washington, D.C. are now attempting to discern where Bidzina hopes to take Georgia.

Although the small nation in the Caucuses has a population of just 4.5 million, it is an incredibly strategic country and has played an outsized role in world affairs.  That role has been especially outsized since current president Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2003 in the wake of the ‘Rose Revolution’ that ushered former president Eduard Shevardnadze out of power and brought to Georgia a new era of legal and democratic reforms, however imperfect, and a liberalized and dynamic economy where corruption has been much reduced.

Saakashvili has pushed aggressively for his country to be a member of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United States and Europe both consider Georgia a vital element in energy geopolitics as a conduit for oil and gas from Russia.  Russia, meanwhile, has had frosty relations with Saakashvili from the start — Russian president Vladimir Putin’s administration imposed an embargo on mineral water, wine and other agricultural products on Georgia in 2006, and the two countries clashed in a small war in 2008 over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So since Saakashvili conceded defeat to Ivanishvili’s coalition earlier Tuesday, the entire world — to say nothing of Georgia — is now left wondering what Ivanishvili actually wants to do with Georgia’s domestic and foreign policy after a polarizing campaign that was waged mostly against the excesses and problems of Saakashvili’s current government.

The world will have some time to gauge Ivanishvili’s agenda — although he and his Georgian Dream will now direct the selection of a new prime minister, Saakashvili will retain much of the government’s power until the end of his term.  So for at least the next year — the next presidential election is set for October 2013 — Saakashvili, however weakened, will still call the shots.  In late 2013, however, under constitutional reforms agreed in 2010, much of the executive power in Georgia’s government will flow to the prime minister.  Accordingly, Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream are set to assume real power, eventually.

Ivanishvili is the youngest of five children, who grew up the poor son of a miner in Chorvila in western Georgia.  He made his fortune in Russia like many oligarchs in the post-Soviet era — by buying formerly state-owned assets on the cheap from the new Russian government of president Boris Yeltsin in banking and then in the metals industry.  Until last year, when he announced his political ambitions, he had been a quiet, if not necessarily ‘shadowy’ figure in Georgian life, content to settle in a glass-and-steel palace (designed by cutting-edge Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu) overlooking Tbilisi,  engaged in philanthropic projects throughout his native Georgia and especially Chorvila, where Ivanishvili has lavished money on the local residents — a move that some have compared to Bill Gates-style philanthropy and others have called 21st-century feudalism.

And yes, he owns zebras and other exotic pets, and yes, two of his four children are albinos, one of whom is a rapper.

But who is Bidzina Ivanishvili — and what is his vision for Georgia?

The best place to start may be with a profile in Forbes from March 2012 (read it all), which is the source of many of the details I’ve seen today in the media about Ivanishvili:

The best way to fathom the influence and impact Bid­zina Ivanishvili has in the former Soviet republic of Georgia would be to imagine that a businessman worth $8 trillion—Ivanishvili’s $6 billion net worth is half of Georgia’s GDP—had established a statewide system of philanthropic patronage in, say, West Virginia and the whole state was subservient to him. He has paid to repair the state university in Tbilisi and refurbish its biggest theaters. His name is on national parks, ski resorts and medical clinics.

Ivanishvili returned to Georgia shortly before 2003’s Rose Revolution after living, first in Russia, then in France, and he was an initial supporter — politically as well as financially — of Saakashvili’s project for Georgia: Continue reading Who is Bidzina Ivanishvili?

Georgian election results: Georgian Dream leads and Saakashvili concedes

UPDATE: As of 9:30 p.m. in Tbilisi, preliminary results (85% reporting) show Georgian Dream leading the ‘party-list’ vote (proportional representation) with 54.89% to just 42.42% for the United National Movement, which would give Georgian Dream an edge among the 77 seats in the Georgian parliament allocated by proportional representation.  Meanwhile, among the single-mandate constituencies, the United National Movement leads in 37 districts, but Georgian Dream leads in 35 (with one district outstanding).  That tiny lead among the single-mandate constituencies is narrower than expected and it would not be enough to offset the gains made by Georgian Dream in the ‘party-list’ vote.  It explains why Saakashvili was so quick to concede defeat earlier today.

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As election results roll slowly in, Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili (pictured above) has apparently conceded the defeat of his governing United National Movement (Ertiani Natsionaluri Modzraoba, ერთიანი ნაციონალური მოძრაობა) to the new opposition group founded by Georgia’s wealthiest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia party (k’art’uli ots’neba–demokratiuli sak’art’velo, ქართული ოცნება–დემოკრატიული საქართველო).

The 150 seats to the Georgian parliament are selected pursuant to a parallel voting system, whereby 77 seats are allocated pursuant to proportional representation (the ‘party-list’ vote) and 73 seats are determined in single-district constituencies.

Currently, with around 30% of the votes counted on the ‘party-list’ vote, Georgian Dream has 53.11% and Saakashvili’s United National Movement just 41.57%.  A parallel vote tabulation by the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy shows a similar result — with Georgian Dream winning about 54.6% of the ‘party list’ vote to just 40.7% for the United National Movement.

Saakashvili conceded earlier today, despite his insistence late yesterday that United National Movement would win significantly more single-district constituencies, notwithstanding the ‘party-list’ vote.  Liz Fuller, writing for The Atlantic, questions whether he actually conceded prematurely.

Saakashvili’s statement leaves fairly little wiggle room — he declares that his party will now go into opposition, despite some harsh words for Georgian Dream at the conclusion of a campaign that’s seen heated rhetoric:

You know well that the views of this coalition were and still are fundamentally unacceptable for me. There are very deep differences between us and we believe that their views are extremely wrong, but democracy works in a way that Georgian people makes decisions by majority. That’s what we of course respect very much….

So as the opposition force, we will struggle for the future of our country; we will struggle for everything what has been created in recent years in terms of struggle against corruption, crime, in terms of Georgia’s modernization, building of new institutions, to protect them as much as possible and to preserve them for future generations and to further develop Georgia as a result of all the constitutional and political processes.

Of course, I express my respect towards the decision of the majority participating in the elections, but at the same time, I thank those numerous supporters who expressed their support towards the governmental course, presidential course and I am sure that in the future there will be no alternative to the progress, to Georgia’s development and we will all continue our struggle with this belief regardless of what the challenges of present day might be.

It appears, then, as if Saakashvili has seen the numbers or exit polls for the single-district constituencies and no longer believes that his party can pull through against the strength of Ivanishvili’s victory on the ‘party list’ vote, although preliminary results are expected later today.

As such, Saakashvili’s statement and the peaceful transfer of power to Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream will now rank among the most significant accomplishments of Saakashvili’s tenure — possibly more important than the economic reforms that have liberalized Georgia’s economy and the crack-down on government corruption.  Saakashvili’s government has not always been incredibly respectful of dissent — in 2009, it forcibly shut down protests in Tbilisi, and it has been accused of using prosecutorial and tax authorities to harass the opposition.  Saakashvili’s government was rocked by allegations of rape, beatings and other brutality throughout the Georgian prison system two weeks before the election.

Ivanishvili wasted no time today in attacking Saakashvili’s reforms as a farce and called on the president to resign and call an early presidential election.  His Georgian Dream coalition brings together Georgians of many different ideological stripes, from pro-Western free-market liberals to xenophobic nationalists, all united essentially only in their opposition to Saakashvili and the excesses of his government in the past eight years.  Ivanishvili has, however, stressed that he would like to normalize relations with Russia, while also indicating he is in no way anti-Europe or anti-Western.

Short of Saakashvili’s resignation, there will be plenty of time to effect the transfer, however, given the constitutional reforms approved in 2010 and set to take effect in October 2013.  Much of the power that Saakashvili now wields as president will be transferred to the prime minister (who is appointed by the Georgian parliament) under Georgia’s new constitution.  But that transfer will not occur until the end of Saakashvili’s current term — the next presidential election is scheduled for October 2013 — so Saakashvili, as a lame-duck president, will largely remain in control of the government until that time. Continue reading Georgian election results: Georgian Dream leads and Saakashvili concedes