International monitors give good bill of health to elections that produced a stunning victory for the opposition.
The EU has welcomed the outcome of Georgia's parliamentary election, saying that the “generally positive conduct” of the elections and the high turnout “underscore[d] Georgia's commitment to its democratic path”.
The statement issued yesterday (2 October) by the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and the European commissioner who most closely deals with Georgia, Štefan Füle, echoes the conclusions of international monitors, in particular those of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE, which had previously described the election campaign as “rough and confrontational”, said that “despite a very polarising campaign the Georgian people have freely expressed their will”.
The election had “shown a healthy respect for fundamental freedoms”, it said, “... and we expect the final count will reflect the choice of the voters”.
Georgia's central electoral commission said there had been no serious problems on election day. The campaign, however, had been marred by “detentions and fines of mostly opposition-affiliated campaigners”, the OSCE said.
The election pitted the country's most powerful political figure – President Mikheil Saakashvili – against the country's wealthiest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili, who is ranked as the 153rd wealthiest man with a personal fortune that is roughly half the size of Georgia's gross domestic product, entered politics only last October after a life of business and philanthropy conducted in near-total obscurity.
The elections mark the first transfer of power via the ballot box since 1991. It was, moreover, a stunning victory for the six-party opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, which had trailed the governing United National Movement (UNM) by 37% to 13% in August. The UNM had been in power since 2004.
The final results have yet to be announced, but Saakashvili conceded defeat yesterday afternoon (2 October), saying that “it is clear from the preliminary results that the opposition has the lead and it should form the government – and I as president should help them with this”.
Going into election day, the UNM had held 119 of the 150 seats in parliament. With about 90% of votes counted, it appears that it will hold around 60 seats in the new parliament, on the back of 40% support. Georgian Dream gained about 55% of the popular vote, which could translate into 85 seats. Calculations are complicated by the mixed nature of the electoral system, as 73 seats are awarded on a first-past-the-post basis.
“I think Saakashvili will be able to resign on his own,” Ivanishvili said. “After his statement today, his next step – and the only right step – would be to resign of his own accord and call a presidential election.”
Saakashvili's two constitutionally permitted terms as president end next year, at which point constitutional reforms approved in 2010 will pass most powers to the prime minister.
The two men were once allies, with Ivanishvili using his own funds to support reforms by Saakashvili in the years after the ‘rose revolution' in 2003, when Saakashvili led a popular revolt against the political elite that had dominated Georgia since it gained independence in 1991.
While heralding the peaceful transfer of power, Ivanishvili remained scathing about Saakashvili, describing the president's modernisation of Georgia over the past eight years as a “façade”.
Ivanishvili said yesterday that he would continue Saakashvili's policy toward European integration and eventual NATO membership. “There is no debate on foreign policy. It is Europe, Euro-Atlantic integration and NATO. There is no substitute,” he said.
He also indicated that his first trip abroad will probably be to the US.
He also said, however, that: “If you ask me ‘America or Russia?', I say we need to have good relations with everybody.”
Like most wealthy Georgians, Ivanishvili made his money in Russia and throughout the campaign has battled claims from the government that he is in hock to the Kremlin. In an effort to counter the charges, Ivanishvili, who returned to Georgia in 2003, says that he has sold all his holdings in Russia, including a stake – thought to be around 1% – that he once held in the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Russia's prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said it would mean more “constructive forces” entering parliament.
Georgia's relations with Russia, always fraught, collapsed in 2008, when Russian forces invaded Georgia after fighting between Georgian forces and the separatist region of South Ossetia.
Georgia is now likely to enter a period of political volatility, as the Georgian Dream prepares for power and as the UNM, itself an agglomeration of varied political forces, regroups. Two of the six parties in the Georgian Dream are affiliated with the European Liberal Democrat and Reform party, but it also brings together a selection of local celebrities, some of whom have made strident xenophobic comments during the election campaign.
The new parliament is due to meet for the first time in 20 days, in new quarters – not in Tbilisi, but in the city of Kutaisi.
For the time being, however, the focus has been on the shock victory scored by the opposition. The administration of US President Barack Obama described the election as “another milestone in Georgia's democratic development”.
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