Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has conceded that his party lost yesterday’s parliamentary election to the Georgian Dream alliance led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili. The former ruling party, the United National Movement, pledged to collaborate with the new government.
The concession of defeat “is important because this is the first time that power has shifted in Georgia through elections,” says Miriam Lanskoy, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Director for Russia and Eurasia.
“The parliament is likely to contain two strong factions which means that both parties will have to learn to compromise to pass legislation or amend the constitution,” she said. “The parliament will also be stronger and therefore more of a counterweight to the executive.”
“Consequently, Georgia now has a better chance of democratic consolidation.”
Raphaël Glucksmann, a senior presidential adviser, said that Saakashvili would not try to undermine Ivanishvili.
“Saakashvili is very disappointed [with the result]. But one thing he is certain about is that leaders don’t cheat in elections, and don’t govern against the popular will,” he told the Guardian, adding that the “political dynamics” were with the opposition:
The big political question is whether Saakashvili and Ivanishvili can co-operate, in the wake of an election campaign characterized by mutual vitriol. The early signs of cooperation were not encouraging. Ivanishvili called Saakashvili’s widely praised reforms a joke, and said his rule was “based on lies”. Government sources dismiss Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge.
After an election campaign marked by acute polarization and vitriolic polemics, some observers feared violence could result if either side contested the results.
“Georgia braced for chaos. What it may have gotten instead was closure,” writes RFE-RL’s Daisy Sindelar.
It was “the first time in the country’s history that a government will be changed at the ballot box rather than through revolution,” reports suggest, in marked contrast to “the way in which some other ex-Soviet nations handled the transfer of power since becoming independent states.”
“We have done what all our ancestors aspired to. We have calmly, quietly transferred power,” said filmmaker Temur Butikashvili.
Of Saakashvili, he said: “We had great hopes when he came in. He studied in America; we thought he had an American mentality. But he turned from a democrat into an autocrat. He turned into an authoritarian.”
But Saakashvili deserved recognition for respecting the democratic process, said former education minister Ghia Nodia, who now heads the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, a Tbilisi-based think-tank.
“Whatever happens next, Saakashvili has vindicated himself to an extent. He is not a perfect democrat. But he is more democrat than autocrat. In autocracies, oppositions can’t win elections.”
Political revenge is not on the agenda, said Ivanishvili, who promised reporters “there will be no political repressions just because some people were in the government and shared political views different from us.” But anyone who has committed a crime will be prosecuted, he said.
“Besides being a contest for parliament, [the poll was] also a shadow leadership election,” Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, tells Reuters:
Saakashvili must step down after a presidential election next year, when reforms weakening the head of state and giving more power to parliament and the prime minister are to take effect. If his party retains control of parliament, it may give him a way to keep calling the shots. If not, Ivanishvili could become premier and Georgia’s dominant politician.
Saakashvili’s record may be mixed, but “the last thing he wants is to be compared to Putin,” says Caucasus expert Svante Cornell. “Whether you like Misha Saakashvili or not, it’s irrelevant. But I think you should never underestimate him as a politician, as a political animal,” Cornell says. “His political instincts are very astute. And you can see this in the way he has rebounded regularly throughout his presidency.”
“In 2007, for example, after the November riots and the crackdown, which was quite devastating, Saakashvili essentially resigned, called new elections, took a chance, and was reelected,” Cornell continues. “And then after the war in 2008 he was written off. He adjusted, he adapted, and if you look at the opinion polls, he’s never been as popular as he was a year and a half after the war.”
Two prominent members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee praised the conduct of both parties during and after the vote.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and James Risch(R-ID), who served as official election observers, said the vote was free and fair and that Washington would work with the new Georgian.
“We watched an historic transition in Georgia. We were very pleased to see that the elections yesterday were overwhelmingly peaceful, with few incidents, and the will of the people of Georgia was expressed,” Shaheen said.
But Georgian civil society groups were more critical.
The Tbilisi-based Human Rights Center (HRIDC) reports that it “investigated 39 cases of alleged politically-motivated oppression, intimidation and persecution; 10 cases of interference in the professional activities of journalists; 7 incidents of alleged politically motivated pressure on entrepreneurs and private owners; countless cases of interrogation and fining of members, donors and activists of the opposition political parties by the State Audit Office of Georgia.”
Parallel voting tabulations conducted last night by independent monitors played a “crucial” role in confirming exit poll findings that the Georgian Dream alliance was in a ten point lead in the popular vote, said the NED’s Lanskoy.
The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (right) deployed over 1200 accredited and trained observers at precinct, district and central election commissions, and as mobile teams within all 73 electoral districts.
The ISFED was forced to withdraw observers from precincts in the district of Khashuri after special security forces were mobilized adjacent to or within polling stations in which Georgian Dream candidates were reportedly ahead in the ballot count.
The Human Rights Center (left) criticized the outgoing government for lacking the political will to ensure the fairness of and maintain “public trust” in the pre-election process, citing amendments to the Law on Political Unions, the Administrative Code and a new Election Code designed to restrict large-scale political funding which were “motivated by the appearance on the Georgian political scene of a new opposition.”
The post-election period “ will give us a good sense of how much damage has been done by the vicious election campaign,” writes Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Last month, the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) warned that at times the two parties have acted “like enemies, not political adversaries or electoral opponents.” Their vindictive rhetoric will make it harder to repair relations after the ballot. This will be especially important moving forward, as persistent political infighting would weaken Georgia’s chances of developing closer ties with NATO and other Western institutions.
Both parties have a compelling reason to avoid further polarization and conflict, said Nodia, a former World Movement for Democracy steering committee member:
“You have Saakashvili’s emotionality and Ivanishvili’s bizarre character. But it’s in both their interests to co-operate,” he said. “If Ivanishvili accepts this power-sharing arrangement, he will see it as a transitory stage towards acquiring full power.”
Some feared Ivanishvili might be tempted to emulate Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych and mete out judicial punishment to his defeated political enemies.
“The deep divisions in the country are slightly threatening. I sense vengeance, not just among people in the street but among [Georgian Dream] politicians who will be in the new parliament,” Nodia said.