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Polling place in Rustavi. Photo: Dave Lawler/Axios

TBILISI and RUSTAVI — The strength of Georgia's democracy and of its all-powerful ruling party will be put to the test over the next two weeks after a deadlocked presidential election on Sunday necessitated what is sure to be a bitter runoff.

Why it matters: In Georgia, it goes almost without saying that Moscow is the enemy, the West provides the path forward and strengthening democracy is the way to get there. But leading figures in the former Soviet republic's politics and society are fearful that this consensus is beginning to break down. In four days here I heard the phrase "existential crisis" more than once. As always, one chief fear is Russia. Another is that the fragile system will begin to implode through some combination of corruption, hopelessness and political score-settling.

Sunday's election was supposed to matter little, except as a show of strength ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in two years time. Georgia's next president will have greatly reduced powers as the country transitions to a new political system, and the ruling party — Georgian Dream (GD) — was expected to win fairly easily.

  • Instead, GD backed Salome Zurabishvili, an unpopular, French-born "independent" candidate who was decried by her political enemies as a racist and, based on comments she made about the 2008 war with Russia, a traitor.
  • Grigol Vashadze, her fairly uninspiring opponent from the United National Movement (UNM), meanwhile, was labeled a puppet and a Russian mole because he'd lived and served in Moscow. The letters "KGB" were sprayed across many of his campaign posters.
  • The ruling party in Georgia has enormous institutional advantages, which were on display in the industrial town of Rustavi. "Observers" lingered outside polling places, crossing the names of those expected (or pressured) to vote for GD off their lists. Still, Zurabishvili fell short of 50%.

The election was ultimately a proxy war between one man who lost power and wants it back, UNM leader-in-exile Mikheil Saakashvili, and another who has tremendous power and exerts it largely from the shadows.

  • It felt appropriate that among the only leading Georgians we did not meet was Bidzina Ivanishvili. An oligarch who built his $5 billion fortune in Russia, founded GD (which he now chairs), served briefly as prime minister after toppling Saakashvili and then retreated to his glass palace above Tbilisi, Ivanishvili seemed to linger in the background of our conversations with officials but rarely entered them directly without prodding.
  • Outgoing president Giorgi Margvelashvili, who was hand-selected by Ivanishvili before falling out with him spectacularly early in his term, claims even he doesn't know how involved the oligarch is in day-to-day governing. "People say, 'this is a message from the ultimate truth, from God," he told me, referring to Ivanishvili. "I have no way of knowing if it's true. It's all only rumors."
  • Zurabishvili told me she has met with Ivanishvili only three times, but expects to consult him before taking major decisions as president in order to avoid a political schism with a man who has churned through three prime ministers in the past three years.

Unlike in much of the former Soviet Union, there is real suspense to Georgian democracy. I found myself on an elevator with Vashadze after a pre-election meeting in which he exuded all the anger and exhaustion of a man who believed he would be robbed of an election. I mumbled a question about the polls, and whether they'd match the official results. He grabbed me by the arm as I went to leave:

"You're in Georgia! Anything can happen."

Go Deeper...

I spent the past four days as part of a German Marshall Fund delegation observing Sunday's presidential election and meeting with the leading candidates, the current president, foreign minister and speaker of parliament and leaders in civil society, the clergy and business.

Go deeper

Updated 45 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director says number of U.S. Omicron cases "likely to rise" — Two years of COVID-19 — Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Data demonstrates most-vaccinated counties less vulnerable to worst of COVID — Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate.
  4. World: Vaccine mandates lose steam in the U.S. while Europe doubles downWHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

Vulnerable Democrats: Less Trump talk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vulnerable House Democrats are convinced they need to talk less about the man who helped them get elected: President Trump.

Why it matters: Democrats are privately concerned nationalizing the 2022 mid-terms with emotionally-charged issues — from Critical Race Theory to Donald Trump's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — will hamstring their ability to sell the local benefits of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan tributes flood in for "giant of the Senate" Bob Dole

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and former Sen. Bob Dole at an event put on by the World Food Program where he was awarded the first “McGovern-Dole Leadership Award” in December 2013. Photo: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Republican and Democratic politicians, including former Senate colleagues, are sharing condolences and memories commemorating the life of Bob Dole, who passed away at 98 on Sunday morning.

The big picture: Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, was the longest serving Republican leader in the Senate until 2018, when current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell surpassed his record.

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