The opposition United National Movement (UNM) Party has named former president Mikheil Saakashvili as their candidate for prime minister ahead of 31 October parliamentary elections in Georgia.
UNM chair Grigol Vashadze announced the decision on Monday, confirming speculation from pundits, supporters, and opponents of Saakashvili.
Saakashvili faces arrest if he returns to Georgia following his conviction in absentia for abuse of office.
Saakashvili, who served as third Georgian President from 2004–2013, was nominated to lead Strength is in Unity, a coalition dominated by the UNM formed to mobilise opposition groups to win the 2018 presidential elections.
The coalition, conceived to be a united opposition front, has since suffered from internal disagreements resulting in the recent departure of the New Georgia and Law and Justice parties.
Giorgi Vashadze — a former UNM MP who leads the Strategy Aghmashenebeli party formed by these two groups — was previously the only opposition leader to explicitly claim to be running as the country’s next PM.
In order to be confirmed as Prime Minister and form a government, a candidate would need to gain the support of 76 of 150 MPs. Recent opinion polling has suggested that no opposition party is likely to secure a majority alone.
The prospect of Mikheil Saakashvili’s prime-ministership looks more uncertain than of other candidates.
The third Georgian president, who currently chairs Executive Committee of Ukraine's National Reform Council and holds Ukrainian citizenship, has been convicted in absentia in Georgia on several counts of abuse of power after his term as president expired and he departed the country in late 2013.
Mikheil Saakashvili vowed to make the next statement about his return to Georgia on Monday.
His latest announcement is similar to those made on the eve of October 2017 local elections and autumn 2018 presidential elections. In numerous statements in recent years, Saakashvili has insisted he was not interested in any government position in Georgia.
Commitments to return
Several major opposition groups that have cooperated to form a possible coalition government in November recently softened their rhetoric against Saakashvili to ‘concentrate’ on those currently in power.
However, several have also been less than enthusiastic about Saakashvili positioning himself as the main political rival of Georgian Dream and their chair, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
These include European Georgia, which was formed by a group of UNM officials and close Saakashvili allies who grew unhappy with the way he ran the party from abroad and split from the UNM in early 2017.
‘Today's decision confirmed that the UNM want a pre-2012 situation back’, Giga Bokeria, European Georgia's majoritarian candidate in Poti, Khobi, and Senaki said on Monday.
Vowing to return to Georgia in a video address on 27 August, Saakashvili also apologised for past ‘mistakes’ but without specifying what they were.
Georgian Dream were quick to remind the public that he was still wanted under Georgian law and that apologising did not mitigate the crimes he has been convicted of.
Vice Prime-Minister and Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani stated on 1 September that Saakashvili should expect ‘arrest procedures’ upon crossing the Georgian border.
Last week, the ruling party also mocked Saakashvili’s commitments to return on their official Facebook page.
Opposition groups European Georgia and Girchi also made sarcastic comments over Saakashvili’s pledge to return, suggesting no other parties offered anything new to voters.
Since late 2019, most major opposition groups including the UNM have cooperated under the loosely formed Coordination Format of Opposition Unity, a format separate from Strength is in Unity coalition.
After successfully pushing Georgian Dream to meet their commitment to reform the electoral system, the parties also pledged not to run against each other in majoritarian seats in the capital Tbilisi. Some have also agreed on a set of common institutional reforms.