Dispatch

Bachelor Padding

How lonely single men created China's dangerous real estate bubble.

For more photos of Beijing's housing bubble, click here. 

BEIJING — When Xiaobo Zhang got married in the early 1990s, he and his bride, like millions of other couples across China, were given a small room to live in by his danwei, or work unit. At the time a lecturer at Nankai University in Tianjin, Zhang's room was utilitarian and unremarkable, virtually indistinguishable from the ones inhabited by his colleagues. In a word: average.

In the China of the 1990s, which was characterized by a pubescent limbo between the economic reforms of the 1980s and the last decade's explosive growth, Zhang recalls that mostly everyone was average. People were neatly packed into work units, generally laboring under the same conditions, eating in the same canteens, and sleeping in the same blocks of industrial-looking housing provided by their employers. There was little disparity in salaries, and few cars and luxury handbags to spend those salaries on.

During these times, Zhang explained, occupants paid minimal rent for their work-unit housing -- which was issued based on seniority, family size, and rank -- and could essentially stay in it forever. There was no legal market for buying and selling property in China, even in rural areas without employer-provided housing, where families built their own homes. Then, in 1998, the Chinese real estate market was born. It began with a decision by the Chinese State Council to monetize housing in an attempt to develop a commercial private market for real estate. In other words, instead of just providing apartments for lifetime occupancy, companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies began to give their employees the option to purchase the housing they lived in. Fourteen years and a serious housing construction boom later, China's property market has allowed for one of the world's largest accumulations of real estate wealth in history, valued at $17 trillion in mid-2010 by HSBC Global Research and worth some 3.27 times China's GDP. (To better understand the scope of the construction boom that precipitated this massive accumulation of wealth, it's worth noting that between 1998 and 2008 alone, 14.4 billion square meters of residential housing space were constructed in China, according to China Statistical Yearbook figures. That's equivalent to 160 times all the residential space on the entire island of Manhattan.)

This is where the definition of "average" in China starts to go a little wonky.

As a result of the real estate boom, reports in Chinese media indicate that the average property in a top-tier Chinese city now costs between 15 and 20 times the average annual salary, though J.P. Morgan reports indicate something closer to 13. (For purposes of comparison, in most of the world's cities, the housing-cost-to-income ratio hovers between 3-to-1 and 6-to-1, rounding out at about 3-to-1 in the United States.) This is especially problematic in China, where thanks to still-prevalent Confucian ideals of the male as the "provider," home ownership has become an unspoken prerequisite to marriage.

It's a tough, competitive life for men in China these days, in part due to the aftershocks of the one-child policy, which has left the country with a gaping gender imbalance of 120 boys for every 100 girls. Author Mara Hvistendahl reports in her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, that by late 2020, 15 percent (or roughly one in six) Chinese men of marriageable age will be unable to find a bride. She predicts that China will see an increase in what's already happening in Taiwan and South Korea, where men doomed to bachelorhood as a result of gender imbalance are boarding planes to Vietnam. Roughly $10,000 covers their flight, room and board, and the price of a Vietnamese wife, according to Hvistendahl, and this practice has become so common that the imported wives "get a booklet translated into Vietnamese explaining their rights when they get married at the Taiwanese Consulate."

Although instances of bride-buying and bride-napping are often reported in China, men are also turning to the web in the face of increasingly heavy competition to attract a mate. On China's mega microblogging website, Sina Weibo, a page called "Save a Single Police Officer" was created by the deputy director of a police station in Sichuan province to help his employees find a spouse. He feared that given the gender imbalance and the grueling work hours of his men, they would become guang gun, or "bare branches," a term usually used to describe men in China who cannot find a wife.

The page launched this February with the profiles of five police officers, including a strapping young man with a gun who goes by the name of "Cola427." Offering a mix of local news, weather reports, and the profiles of single officers (including some female ones) who have been added to the mix, the page now has more than 55,000 followers. This July, a post encouraged all citizens to rejoice because Cola427 (with over 6,000 followers of his own), age 29, measuring in at 1.78 meters and 70 kilos, had found the love of his life through the site.

Millions of other Chinese men are not so lucky. While the most disadvantaged are the country's poor male farmers, who now live at society's rock bottom in rural villages devoid of women their age (as females tend to leave in search of better jobs and marriage prospects), the marriage challenge is rippling its way up through the classes. It is manifested most clearly in China's real estate market, where -- given the highly desirable nature of property -- men are pouring all their savings as a means of improving their chances of finding Mrs. Right, or any Mrs. for that matter.

"Mathematically, they can't get married," says Zhang, referring to younger Chinese men and their double burden of financial demands and the shortage of available women to marry. In 1994, he moved out of his danwei to study for a Ph.D. at Cornell University in the United States. Today, he works as a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington and as a professor at Peking University. Along with Columbia University economist Shang-Jin Wei, he has published several studies on China's economic growth, including one that shows how 30 to 48 percent (or $8 trillion worth) of the real estate appreciation in 35 major Chinese cities is directly correlated with China's sex-ratio imbalance and a man's need to acquire wealth (property) in order to attract a wife.

"Mother-in-law syndrome" -- the idea that Chinese mothers-in-law are driving up the price of real estate by refusing to allow their daughters to marry men who are not homeowners -- has been widely reported in China, but Zhang and Wei take things a step further. They show how Chinese cities with the highest ratio of men to women are also consistently the ones with the highest percentages of real estate appreciation, which follows the logic that fewer women means more competition among men and a greater need for a flashy house. At the same time, rental prices in these cities have increased minimally by comparison, lending credence to the theory that the rise in real estate prices is not driven by an actual demand for housing, but by the demand to own a house.

This demand has no doubt contributed to fears over China's housing bubble, which has been the source of concerned speculation now that China's economic growth has slowed to 7.6 percent, the lowest since 2009. A recent IMF publication shows how a decline in the Chinese real estate market could do everything from affect the price of zinc and nickel to trigger a trade slowdown with South Korea, Japan, and other G-20 partners. Yet from the marriage-market perspective, the demand for property appears unrelenting.

* * *

Berlin Fang, a columnist, literary translator, and associate director at the North Institute for Teaching and Learning at Oklahoma Christian University, argues that the demands of the marriage market and China's relatively new market economy are so heavy that "Chinese men have lost the ability to be average." Like Zhang, he recalls the days of the danwei with bittersweet nostalgia, as a time when people weren't so quick to size each other up in terms of their market value. There was a certain comfort and ease to being average, one that has become extinct, given the extreme competition to be one of the "haves." In such a densely populated country, Fang insists that "average is the new mediocre."

The distinction between "average" and "mediocre" is one that has been ticking on the Chinese national psyche, as indicated by one of the questions on last year's gaokao, China's notorious college entrance exam:

Please write on the theme of refusing to be mediocre and accepting to be average. People cannot be mediocre. Mediocrity means no creation, no development, no progress. Living in this world, we should not be mediocre. We should have principles, insights, and persistence. Write 800 words in any genre except poetry.

Fang notes that the question was a source of heated debate, as there were concerns that today's students might not be able to distinguish between "mediocre" and "average." In a country where the social pressure to excel is so acute and mediocrity is rarely an option, Fang agrees that the question is knotty. He suspects it was designed to make students understand that it's acceptable to be average, so long as it's an aspirational average, not a feckless one.

Examples of responses that earned perfect scores can be found on Chinese news portal Sina.com, including one that tells the story of Wang Xiaobo. Following a subpar performance at the office, Wang does not receive the bonus he was expecting. When, over a meal of freshly prepared fish, he reveals to his wife that he was denied his bonus, she, "putting down her chopsticks and losing color in her face," laments that she is destined to live a lowly life, having such a good-for-nothing husband. After nursing his woes with a bit of alcohol, Wang hands his life savings over to a shady investment banker and eventually loses everything. Naturally, he heads to a lake to commit suicide, but instead ends up saving a nearby drowning woman. This good deed restores his honor, and he eventually becomes the hardworking, well-earning man whom his wife wants him to be.

While Wang's story certainly reflects a triumph over mediocrity, the fact that his wife's well-being is so dependent on his financial performance, and that Wang is so clearly depicted as her provider, reflects how ingrained these ideas remain in modern Chinese society.

Yet because it's nearly economically impossible for most Chinese men -- average or otherwise -- to be the providers they aspire to be, they frequently have to rely on their parents for financial support. This is a slippery slope, as it often gives progenitors more control than warranted over their son's choice of a partner, but Chinese parents -- keen to have their sons dutifully snuggled into wedlock -- gladly chip in. Zhang and Wei's study shows how this plays into China's household savings rate, which at 30 percent is among the world's highest. They argue that this fact is of particular economic concern, as the high marriage-related savings rate contributes to China's current account surplus, which in turn drives down China's exchange rate and perpetuates the global trade imbalance.

"It's completely unsustainable," says Zhang, arguing that the exact opposite -- less saving, more spending -- is what China's economy needs to keep afloat. But because men need to buy homes, they save. And because their demand for homes drives up real estate property, everyone else must save too, in order to keep up.

Seventy-one percent of single women prefer that their future husbands be homeowners, according to the 2010 Marriage Market Survey in China. It is culturally approved -- even expected -- for a woman to "free-ride" and move into her husband's house without making any contributions to it, but given the astronomical cost of housing, more women are helping to cover costs too. Doctoral research by Leta Hong Fincher of Tsinghua University focuses on Chinese women who are pitching in, if not shouldering, the joint purchase of a home with their husbands. She points out that this may work to their disadvantage down the road. Due to traditional, yet increasingly improbable, ideals of the man as the sole provider, homes are generally registered under a man's name. According to Chinese law, property belongs only to the person whose name it is registered under, so in the event of a divorce, women who are not listed as co-owners will lose out on financial contributions to their former marital home. Fincher also cites instances in which young women are hassled by parents into transferring their life's savings to a bachelor relative, so he can use the money to buy a house and increase his chances of finding a wife. Because it is assumed that a woman will marry into a house, the logic goes that she has a less pressing need for savings of her own.

On the other hand, women who are homeowners before marriage are considered better off, and this can actually improve their chances of "marrying up" into the echelons of moneyed men who have bigger houses than they do. Jeannie Wang, 29, of Beijing, is one of those women. Well-employed at a major auditing firm, she purchased an apartment as an investment and plans to live at home with her parents until marriage. "Ideally, I would like a man to also have a house of his own, or at least the earning potential so that we can buy one together," she says, slightly concerned that having a man move into her house would humiliate him. "I wouldn't mind so much if I really cared for him, but it's something I think few Chinese men would go for."

Her case illustrates the double-edged nature of female property ownership in China. Own something, and it might allow you to marry someone with something bigger. Own something too big, and it could intimidate potential suitors.

For men, however, bigger is always better. Zhang recalls visiting villages in China that were bedizened with a "phantom third story." This type of construction refers to a two-story house with an unfurnished, unfinished third story built to make the house appear more grandiose from the outside. The trend has taken off in neighborhoods where the competition for a wife is particularly fierce; in some areas, it has become mainstream to the extent that matchmakers won't schedule an appointment with a man's family unless his house has the requisite phantom floor.

On a more recent trip to China, Zhang landed in the southwestern city of Guizhou with a colleague from an Ohio university who was puzzled to find himself in what appeared to be an entire village full of churches. As it turns out, in addition to phantom third stories, owners are competing to add height to their homes by upping the size of the lightning rods on their rooftops. And the bigger they get, the more they look like crosses.

The most alarming thing about these budding basilicas may be that the majority of them remain empty. After they are used to bait prospective wives, the newlyweds often migrate to larger cities. Zhang says this is known as the "two-rat" phenomenon, as it refers to the migrant couples who live in urban, underground rented rooms like rats -- and, yes, sometimes also with rats -- while their large, rural houses are left vacant. This phenomenon begins to explain why there are some 64.5 million empty houses in China, according to economist Yi Xianrong of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Wei and Zhang estimate that the pressure to accumulate wealth for marriage is responsible for 20 percent of the growth of the Chinese economy, as men scramble to start businesses and secure high-paying jobs in order to keep up with expenses. The word fangnu is an example of their struggle. Literally translated, it means "a slave to the home" and refers not to a woman who is a slave to housework, but in most cases, to a man who must slave at his job in order to afford a house and, by extension, a wife.

* * *

Sensing the challenges faced by Chinese men in the dating and marriage departments, 29-year-old Vincent Qi is trying to make a difference. Born in China, he went to college in Britain and speaks English like an over-caffeinated grad student. Now in Beijing, he calls himself "The Lady Whisperer" and markets himself as an online guru on how to get women. Qi also teaches online classes on confidence-building, self-improvement, and how to be an all-around better man. He has over 4,000 followers on China's Weibo, and just three months since the online launch of his tuition-based school, he has attracted over 100 students -- all male, and all rather average. They include a motley mix of students, small-online-shop owners, and working professionals on various rungs of the career ladder.

"Socially, we [Chinese men] need to be average," says Qi, stressing that "China is not a culture that values individuality." He is quick to add, however, that from a monetary perspective, it's highly preferable to be well above average. This creates a paradox for China's "average Zhou": how to be far enough above average to be respected, without exceeding the culturally enforced limitations of what is considered respectably above average?

One of Qi's students, 28-year-old Rodman Xie, thinks he is close to finding the answer.

"I took the gaokao three times and still only managed to get into a very average university," he says. "By societal standards, I've failed at many things, but I've never stopped setting goals for myself, and that's what keeps me going." He admits that though things seemed easier in the days of the almighty work unit, he wouldn't trade that kind of stability for what he describes as "the diversity that contributes to a healthy society -- the sort of diversity that we're starting to have now."

A native of China's northeast, or Dongbei region, Xie works in marketing at an export company in Shanghai, a city that he admits wasn't his first choice, but where he moved for the opportunities. He describes the women there as "materialistic," but seems relatively unshaken by the doom and gloom of the gender imbalance.

He explains that in addition to a whole lot of stress, the last 30 years in China -- his lifetime -- have also brought a whole new realm of possibilities. "We can change cities, change careers, pursue our interests, meet people from all over the world, and sometimes even travel to foreign countries," says Xie. "And for now, that kind of average is good enough for me."

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Georgia Holds Its Breath

Rocked by a prison scandal and allegations from all sides over illicit campaigning, this tiny country's election has become a brawl between political heavyweights.

TBILISI, Georgia — On a warm night last week, a crowd gathered in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi in front of the glass facade of the Philharmonia building. The crowd members were young, oppositional, and angry; disorganized but peaceful. A police car approached and was met with a cacophony of whistles, more mocking than aggressive.

The crowd had been drawn onto the street by the release of shocking videos by two opposition television channels showing systematic abuse in one of Tbilisi's prisons. One clip, showing the rape of a male prisoner with a broom, was especially shocking for a socially conservative society. Reports of the terrible conditions in the country's prisons had flickered through Georgian households for years. Georgia now has the highest prison population per capita in Europe, with 24,000 inmates, four times as many as when Mikheil Saakashvili was first elected president in 2004. But Georgia's leaders had ignored reports of prison brutality, trumpeting instead police reform and their successful "zero tolerance on crime" policy.

Now they were being proved spectacularly wrong and at the worst possible moment, just 13 days before crucial parliamentary elections on Oct. 1.

Saakashvili reacted quickly to contain the damage. The powerful 31-year-old interior minister, Bacho Akhalaia -- who had been in office only two months -- resigned. The ombudsman who had long been registering unheeded alarm about prison conditions was made the new prisons minister. But the president then muddied his message. Clearly someone close to the opposition had chosen to release the videos at this moment to embarrass the government, but Saakashvili lashed out with an improbable line of attack that harked back to the August 2008 war, telling a public meeting that the revelations were part of a Moscow-orchestrated "conspiracy" against Georgia, ahead of the election, with the goal of forcing Georgia "back into Russia's imperial space."

The problem for the president is that when he said he was "shocked" and "very angry" and knew nothing about the state of his prisons, few believed him. The country's highly punitive criminal-justice system was built by a group of men who now hold the jobs of prime minister, justice minister and defense minister. The general state of Georgia's prisons, if not the graphic details, was an open secret. Most residents of Tbilisi know someone -- a neighbor or a cousin -- who has been in prison, often for a relatively small offense, such as marijuana possession or theft. A few months ago, I heard a terrible account of life inside Georgia's prisons from a businessman named Lasha Shanidze who had ended up on the wrong side of the government in a complex financial dispute and is now a fugitive in the United States. Shanidze described a regime in which he and his fellow inmates were forced to eat rotten food and subjected to nighttime beatings.

One Tbilisi taxi driver told me that his neighbor had done a four-year sentence at age 18 for theft and that he had spent three months of it in the Gldani prison, the facility at the center of the scandal. "He told me that three months there was so awful it was like 10 years of his life," my driver said. "The guards would burst into the cells at 2 or 3 in the morning and beat people randomly."

Even before the scandal, the governing party was facing a strong challenge. Now its hopes of maintaining its monopoly of power are under much greater threat.

The Oct. 1 election marks a turning point for Georgia. Besides being a contest for Parliament, it is also a shadow leadership election. In 2013, after Saakashvili's second and final term as president expires, a new constitution will take effect, transferring key powers from the president to the prime minister, who will be elected by Parliament. Whoever controls the new Parliament will get to elect the prime minister next year.

Greek scholar Ilia Roubanis has called Georgian politics "pluralistic feudalism," a competition between a patriarchal leader who enjoys uncontested rule over the country and a leader of the opposition bidding to unseat him and acquire the same. The current contest fits that description. Put simply, it is a clash of two narratives about Georgia set out by two big personalities: Saakashvili, and his main challenger, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Saakashvili has been personally leading the election campaign for the governing party, the United National Movement, even though he is not running for Parliament himself. His main message is that, like the medieval Georgian king David the Builder, he has been building a new nation and he and his team deserve to be allowed to finish the job.

In that spirit, on Sept. 16, Saakashvili formally reopened a famous medieval landmark, the 11th-century Bagrati Cathedral (rebuilt in controversial fashion, overriding the objections of UNESCO that the construction work interfered with the original medieval fabric of the church). On Sept. 27, the new airport, named after David the Builder, in Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi, is due to open. A new glass-and-steel sci-fi Parliament building in Kutaisi is also scheduled to be completed in October.

The opposition says that this Georgia is a Potemkin village hiding the miserable condition of large segments of the population, such as the unemployed, rural farmers -- and prisoners. Until last year, Saakashvili was in control of the script, aided by the uncritical news coverage of Georgia's two main television channels. But the countermessage now has a powerful figurehead in Ivanishvili, Georgia's wealthiest man, estimated by Forbes to be worth $6.4 billion. Ivanishvili, who built his fortune in the metals industry during the heady privatization period in the 1990s, is an enigmatic and colorful figure, best known for his lavish philanthropy, large modern-art collection, and private zoo -- before he unexpectedly decided to enter Georgian politics in 2011, saying he planned to become prime minister and turn around the economy. He has since built a coalition of six very diverse parties named Georgian Dream after a song by his rapper son.

Both the governing United National Movement, or UNM, and Georgian Dream are loose coalitions, held together by their powerful patriarchal leaders.

Saakashvili's governing UNM combines a free market Westernizing ideology with the bureaucratic machine of a typical post-Soviet governing party. Georgian Dream is an even more diverse alliance whose constituents' only common connection is loyalty to Ivanishvili and opposition to Saakashvili. It has support in Tbilisi from urban democratic professionals who want to see the current governing party's monopoly on power broken. Outside the capital, it frequently plays on economic populism and barely concealed xenophobia. A third group in the alliance comprises former bureaucrats who evidently see Georgian Dream as their route back to power. This makes for mixed messages: Georgian Dream has attracted some of Georgia's most pro-Western opposition members and puts forward a foreign-policy platform that commits them to EU and NATO membership, while its new television station, Channel 9, has lashed out at local Western-funded organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and Transparency International for alleged covert support of the Georgian government. I saw the clash of narratives in bright colors in the Black Sea city of Batumi. Batumi has been Georgia's boomtown and Saakashvili's pet project for the past few years. The president spends as much time there as in Tbilisi and has invited a stream of foreign visitors to visit, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June.

It is an impressive sight. A forest of new skyscrapers has sprung up, changing what used to be a shabby seaside resort into a modern city. Batumi now has a Sheraton, a Radisson, and a string of new casinos. Tens of thousands of tourists poured into the resort this summer.

On the other hand, I found locals much less enthusiastic than I expected. Their complaints covered the spectrum from merely disappointed ("local people aren't getting jobs") to the fully paranoid and xenophobic ("the Turks are buying up the city," "Turkey is working with Saakashvili to recapture Batumi"). Batumi was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost reconquered it in 1921.

Several buildings have become symbolic battlegrounds. The Georgian and Turkish governments jointly agreed to plans to reconstruct a mosque, built by the Ottomans in the mid-19th century and destroyed by the Soviet regime in the 1930s. But the project appears to have been halted after anti-Turkish protests supported by the Georgian Orthodox Church and local opposition activists, several of them members of Georgian Dream.

A less pious building project is Batumi's Trump Tower. A massive billboard stands on the seafront proclaiming the spot where it will be constructed. The Donald himself has become friendly with Saakashvili and visited Batumi this April. The opposition points out that he has merely lent his name to the project, not invested any money, and calls it an empty PR stunt designed to boost the image of the government, rather than the Georgian economy.

The local parliamentary race pits Giorgi Baramidze, a long-standing Saakashvili ally and deputy prime minister, against a local Georgian Dream-affiliated populist named Murman Dumbadze. I went to see both of them.

Like most of the current Georgian elite, Baramidze still looks improbably young. (He is in fact 44.) He speaks excellent English, having studied at Georgetown University. He ridiculed the local opposition as xenophobic and made a robust defense of the mosque and the Turkish presence in Batumi. "How can we isolate ourselves from our biggest neighbor after Russia?" he asked. On the mosque issue he said, "We internationally are not apologetic on this question." The current government can be faulted on many things but not on tolerance to foreigners and other faiths.

Baramidze's democratic tolerance did not extend to the opposition, however. One of the legitimate complaints of the Georgian opposition for years is that no television channel that criticizes the government is allowed to broadcast nationwide. Under much international pressure, the Georgian Parliament in July passed a law known as "Must Carry," obliging cable operators to carry all television channels, including the Ivanishvili-affiliated station, Channel 9. But despite the calls of many outside actors, including the U.S. government, the legislation expires on Election Day. "Why not continue it?" I asked Baramidze.

"We have to bear in mind that Channel 9 might serve as a catalyst to give Russia a free hand to act against Georgia [after the election]," Baramidze told me implausibly, spinning the idea that to allow the opposition channel airtime might be a prelude to the rumble of Russian tanks.

Dumbadze, the Georgian Dream candidate, is as gaunt as Baramidze is chubby. He has a reputation for old-fashioned Georgian nationalism and was expelled this March from the liberal-leaning Republican Party after insulting an ethnic Russian colleague.

Dumbadze has trimmed his xenophobic rhetoric, or rather repackaged it as economic nationalism. He told me that he had opposed the mosque reconstruction and that "Batumi was behind me," but that he would now favor it if local Muslims wanted it. The problem, Dumbadze claimed, was that the government was discriminating against Georgians in favor of Turks, who were getting the jobs and investment opportunities the locals were being denied. As a result, Georgians are being forced to travel to Turkey as guest workers (something others confirmed for me in Batumi). "I think that a Turkish passport and a Georgian passport are not equal here," he said. "A Turkish passport is stronger." During the protests against the mosque, he promised that he would "raze it to the ground with bulldozers."

This anti-foreigner pitch may well win him votes. Throughout Georgia, I noticed the paradox that the governing party is doing badly in areas where foreign investment has been strongest, perhaps because it failed to make its case to the local population.

At Batumi's Press Cafe, my host and guide to the city, Aslan Chanidze, helped me understand why. A journalist and nongovernmental activist, he was fielding telephone calls from his home village. A Turkish company, assisted by the Georgian government, is planning to build a new hydroelectric power station nearby. According to Chanidze's telling of it, in classic post-Soviet style, neither of them appeared to have explained to the local population what they were doing, and villagers were being told to sell their land at deflated prices.

All this fits with what many nongovernmental reports have been saying for years: that modern Georgia's biggest problem is the absence of rule of law. In its enthusiasm to build a new Georgia, Saakashvili's government has been cavalier in its regard for people's property rights.

Georgia is a land of regions, each one fighting its own election. I traveled north along the Black Sea coast to Zugdidi, a small, bustling town on the border with the Russian-supported breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Nothing in this election is straightforward. In terms of the outlook of its candidates, Zugdidi is the mirror image of Batumi. Here, the Georgian Dream candidate is Irakli Alasania, a Westernized, English-speaking politician who split from the government after the 2008 war. He had served as Georgia's envoy for talks with Abkhazia, when he was then ambassador to the United Nations -- and is now talked about as a presidential candidate for 2013. The governing party's candidate here is Roland Akhalaia, the chief prosecutor and Soviet-style strongman of the region.

Akhalaia is also the father of two fierce and powerful sons, Rata, the deputy defense minister, and Bacho, the interior minister who resigned over the prisons scandal. He did not want to see me, so I spent most of the day with Alasania and his supporters.

As we drove out to a village named Orsantia to see an opposition rally, we spotted Akhalaia, the government candidate, talking to a crowd of 100 or so voters on the road, but my driver was contemptuous of this as an exercise in democracy. "Look at the minibuses, one, two, three," he said, pointing to the vehicles parked behind the crowd. "They've bussed people in." (Although I was not able to substantiate the claim, it's one I heard frequently from opposition supporters around the country.)

Orsantia is a large village dotted with fruit trees and palms. Talking to some of the locals waiting to hear Alasania speak, I was struck by the fact that they didn't mention the conflict in Abkhazia on their doorstep at all. In fact, the only time anyone mentioned Abkhazia was to say something I hadn't expected at all: that young men from the village were going to work in the breakaway region's resorts of Pitsunda and Gagra for the summer.

The Georgian Dream opposition movement is well organized in the region. A score of volunteers in blue T-shirts had brought people out of their houses and had set up a microphone on what passed for Orsantia's village green. Alasania arrived in a four-wheel-drive car and stood under a couple of pine trees talking to a large crowd. He talked fast and people listened mainly in silence, frowning.

On the fringe of the rally, I talked to two well-dressed elderly men, a former policeman and a former factory manager. Neither had a job anymore; both were hoping for a Georgian Dream victory in the election. When I mentioned the word "progress," one of them shot back at me, "Any progress is thanks to the West. It's because you are here."

Back in Zugdidi, I talked to Alasania in the Pizza Diadem cafe, along with two more Iraklis (confirming my long-held view that Georgia could do with a few more first names) -- one his spokesman, the other a young businessman and the candidate in the nearby town of Abasha.

Alasania said he had faced a lot of harassment and obstruction earlier in the summer, but in the last three weeks things had gotten much easier and he could campaign freely, a change he attributed to the arrival of long-term election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He said he was confident of victory but was worried that people in the villages were conservative and might be afraid to come out and vote.

What were the main issues in the election? Jobs. When I mentioned that U.S. President Barack Obama's biggest problem was an "8-point-something unemployment rate," Irakli the businessman laughed and said, "In Abasha, it's 98-point-something." (Officially Georgia's national jobless rate is 16 percent, but a recent poll found that 34 percent of respondents were unemployed and looking for work.)

To be a voter in this election in Georgia is to be caught in an almost mythical battle between clashing titans: a government with a strong record that is widely felt to have grown arrogant and lost touch with ordinary people, and an opposition, led by the country's richest man, that has lots of energy but lacks a well-articulated program apart from "Georgia Without Misha [as in President Saakashvili]."

Traveling around Georgia I sensed a mood that was palpably more sympathetic to the opposition and the idea of change. Polls that had given the governing party a wide lead were probably misleading -- they also recorded a large number of "don't-knows" and "refuse-to-answers" -- voters more likely to cast their ballots for Georgian Dream. Yet many had given up hope in the government while not being fully convinced by Ivanishvili. I also saw that the governing party was much better mobilized. On Election Day, the UNM will be able to count on most of the support of public employees and also of the country's ethnic minorities, Armenians and Azeris, who tend to vote for the government in Georgian elections so as to prove their loyalty to the state and also because the current government has a better record when it comes to protecting minority groups.

Another important factor is that the electoral system is severely weighted in favor of the government. Almost half -- 73 of the 150 seats being contested -- are in local constituencies where the UNM is fielding official candidates who can get out the vote and many of the opposition challengers are little-known outsiders. It is theoretically possible that the governing party could emulate George W. Bush in 2000, by winning a majority despite losing the popular vote.

Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition has spent much of its time campaigning with one hand tied behind its back, hit by multimillion-dollar punitive fines for alleged improper use of funds and with much more restricted access to television than the governing party. International observers have slapped the government's wrists for this, with a team from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly saying that "the fines levied are disproportionate and apparently being levied in a selective manner mainly targeting one political subject."

If the opposition does worse on Election Day than it expects, this could be a recipe for trouble, as Georgian Dream contests the results and the government defends its victory. The opposition wants to evoke the parallel of the Rose Revolution that followed 2003's disputed election, while the government summons up fears of the civil war that wracked Georgia in the early 1990s. Plenty of people I met in Georgia were bracing themselves for confrontation. Most were worried that it would be hard to mediate between the two warring sides.

In Zugdidi, an old friend and yet another Irakli, journalist Irakli Lagvilava, argued that Georgia has come a long way in the last 20 years, allowing him to put a positive spin on this election. "After the era of [nationalist President Zviad] Gamsakhurdia, we learned that we shouldn't shoot each other; after the Rose Revolution we learned that next time we have to choose our leaders by elections," he said. "We are making progress."

Progress, so long as the polarized forces fighting this election reconcile themselves to the idea that outright victory is unlikely and they may have to share the political space, not dominate it.

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