TBILISI, Georgia — Political opponents are accusing Georgia's president of trying to "play Putin" for seeking to become prime minister because of term limits barring his candidacy in next year's election — a ploy exploited by Russia's former and current president, Vladimir Putin.
As Georgians head to the polls Monday in parliamentary elections, President Mikheil Saakashvili and his ruling United National Movement party are vying with a coalition led by billionaire philanthropist-turned-opposition-leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, with the victorious party to decide who becomes the next prime minister — a position that is to be strengthened following constitutional reforms set to take effect next year.
"What we are facing is a chance for Georgia to have the first-ever transfer of power through democratic elections," said Irakli Alasania, a former diplomat and Saakashvili ally who has joined the opposition. "But what he is doing now on the ground right now is completely the opposite."
Mr. Saakashvili, 44, an American-educated lawyer, hasn't ruled out taking the prime minister post and plays coy on the issue.
But his future isn't a fait accompli. Mr. Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party has mobilized thousands of voters who fear creeping authoritarianism and say the country's fast-paced reforms have yet to lift the majority of Georgians from poverty.
Unprecedented development has transformed the former Soviet republic through ambitious building projects, and the country's main cities are now adorned with glass and steel with a space-age feel.
But in rural regions and many urban areas, many Georgians face high levels of unemployment, and official salaries hover around $162 a month.
"All this infrastructure and development is good, but the main thing is people," said Iago Kachkachishvili, head of sociology at Tbilisi State University, adding that official statistics are skewed and more than 40 percent of households remain in poverty. "Unemployment is the No. 1 social problem and a burning issue for society."
An opinion poll in August found the United National Movement leading, with support from 37 percent of the electorate, and Georgian Dream trailing, with 12 percent.
But a scandal erupted last month when videos of prison guards sexually abusing inmates were made public, sparking widespread outrage and imperiling the ruling party's popularity in the polls.
Last week, Tbilisi State University saw thousands of angry students take to the streets, even as the government sacked key ministers responsible for the abuse.
Protester Vlas Keshelava, a 21-year-old political science student, says that if the government was blind to the abuse, then that in itself is a failure of trust.
"But if they knew about this — and people think that the government knew about these [violations] in the prisons — then that's very bad," he said.
Mr. Saakashvili came to power after the 2003 nonviolent Rose Revolution and moved to orient Georgia toward the West. He is credited with stamping out police corruption and having embarked on a neoliberal economic agenda that saw many nationalized operations become privately run endeavors.
But his attempt at retaking the secessionist territory of South Ossetia in 2008 sparked war with Russia and torpedoed Georgia's ascension into the NATO alliance.
Mr. Saakashvili's rhetoric against Russia remains bellicose, but his allies say rapprochement efforts have been frustrated by Moscow, which continues to refuse visas to Georgians even after the government lifted visa requirements for Russian citizens.
"Georgia has been under a blanket economic embargo since 2006," said Giorgi Kandelaki, deputy chair of the Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee. "You name the issue, you name the limitation — and all of these are unilateral."
Georgia's richest man
Mr. Kandelaki says that Mr. Ivanishvili and his coalition are drawing support from dark forces in Moscow and that the philanthropist is using his $6.4 billion fortune to buy his way to power.
Others note that Mr. Ivanishvili, 56, is known for his philanthropy. Since returning to Georgia eight years ago from Russia, he has quietly subsidized state institutions, been a patron for artists and funded public works in villages in his home region.
But since his entry into politics was announced last year, Mr. Ivanishvili has been stripped of his citizenship, and his businesses have been fined millions of dollars by the state for breaking campaign finance laws — charges he denies.
Mr. Saakashvili's allies say there's more to the billionaire than generosity. They charge that Mr. Ivanishvili is a threat to the country's fragile democracy and independence from Russia.
"He was indeed spending money, especially in the early days of the Rose Revolution, and we are grateful for that," Mr. Kandelaki said. "But not more than that, he didn't have ambition to hijack the state, which unfortunately [is] what we see now."
Mr. Ivanishvili said earlier this year that he has sold off his Russian assets and insists he is no friend of Mr. Putin's. His coalition includes many former Saakashvili loyalists, such as Mr. Alasania, who left the diplomatic service to join the opposition in 2008.
Mr. Alasania says 60 Georgian Dream party activists were arrested and detained on petty charges last week, a development described as troubling by Riccardo Migliori, president of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.
"Any actions that may give an impression of imbalance would be of grave concern," Mr. Migliori said Tuesday.
Gia Bokeria, chairman of Georgia's Inter-Agency task force for Free and Fair Elections and a key Saakashvili ally, said his office had directed police to use administrative means rather than incarceration.
But Mr. Alasania says the arrests are nothing short of intimidation: "We have mass arrests of our key figures in the campaign infrastructure. This is something intolerable, and this takes away the chance of competitive elections."
Georgia's post-Soviet history has been turbulent. A civil war in the 1990s, three bloody wars in which it lost a pair of rebel provinces that are now occupied by Russian forces and then the nonviolent Rose Revolution of 2003 have all been marked by changes in leadership from the street.
That leaves Monday as a real test of the maturity of Georgian democracy. The election is not necessarily a winner-take-all contest but rather could usher in a new era of pluralist democracy that many here would welcome.
"The minimum achievement will be the parliament will be very diverse and the decision-making process won't be in the hands in one political power like now," said Mr. Kachkachishvili.