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Georgia: Saakashvili Wins, But With Far Weaker Mandate --> Saakashvili (left) and Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze at an Orthodox Christmas service in Tbilisi today (InterPressNews) With nearly all the votes counted in Georgia's snap presidential election, official tallies showed Mikheil Saakashvili headed for a second term, but his razor-thin first-round win and his surprising loss among voters in Tbilisi suggest that he returns with a more ambiguous mandate than before.

Georgia's Central Election Commission is still counting ballots from the January 5 presidential balloting. They showed Saakashvili -- who called early elections after his widely criticized crackdown on opposition protests in November -- leading with around 52 percent of the vote nationwide, compared to around 27 percent for his main rival, united opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze.

In order to secure a first-round victory, Saakashvili needs 50 percent plus one vote. Speaking to reporters late on January 6, Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili said final results were not likely to change dramatically, and that a runoff probably would not be needed.

With most of the votes in Tbilisi counted, it appeared that it was Gachechiladze with the upper hand, leading in eight of the capital's 10 districts.

"I expected much more, of course," Alexander Rondeli, a political analyst, said in admitting his surprise. "Saakashvili had an active and energetic campaign, during which -- in contrast to his opponents -- he was accentuating mostly positive issues. So I expected more, and I didn't think he was going to lose in Tbilisi."

Positive Signs

While waiting for the final results, most analysts were already pointing to two aspects of the vote that make it unique in Georgian history.

One is that this was the first presidential ballot in post-Soviet Georgia based on genuine political competition, in which -- in contrast to previous contests -- there was not a single powerful candidate likely to sweep close to 100 percent of the vote.

The other is that the January 5 election received the highest marks from international observers to date in Georgia. In a preliminary statement the day after the vote, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other bodies concluded that while there were significant challenges that still needed to be addressed, the election was "in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections."

This sentiment, however, is not shared by the nine-party opposition coalition that was backing Gachechiladze. The coalition claims the authorities are trying to manipulate the election results in order to avoid going to a second round. Gachechiladze and his supporters say they have evidence of irregularities during the vote, and warn that they will begin holding daily protest rallies beginning on January 8.

Analyst Rondeli said he did not expect the rallies to be large in scale. Georgians, he suggested, were tired of such protests.

Many Georgians, he added, were pleased to see Saakashvili and Gachechiladze standing side by side at an Orthodox Christmas service held on January 6 in the Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral.

For Rondeli, this was a sign that tensions might gradually be giving way to more cordial relations between Georgia's political rivals. "I was very pleased to watch the Sameba Cathedral, Saakashvili shook hands with Gachechiladze, who smiled at him in return," Rondeli said. "This gives very good cause for optimism; it's a sign that our political culture will become more sophisticated from now on."

Not Unambiguous

Two nonbinding plebiscites were also held during the presidential vote. One asked voters whether 2008 parliamentary elections should be held in the spring or fall. The second was meant to gauge public support for the country's NATO membership bid.

The Central Election Commission has not started counting the plebiscite results, but exit polls suggested that some 61 percent of those who voted were in favor of NATO membership. That figure is somewhat lower than was expected, as the prospect of NATO membership had earlier enjoyed virtually overwhelming support in Georgia.

Rondeli said such a result could have been caused by general discontent with Saakashvili's administration. "I expected more," Rondeli said. "This seems to be a result of general sentiments that 'if this government wants it, we'll vote against it.' This is a very negative aspect."

Whatever the outcome, there is reason to believe that Georgia is entering a new era of political diversity.

Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, said the 60 percent turnout was a positive sign. "The turnout was very high -- and with this, [Georgia's] population asserted that it is participating in the governance of this country, which was a very important thing," Subari said. "Despite the fact that during the campaign, and on election day, there were cases of utilizing administrative resources, overall, the actual voting occurred in a normal way, and the high level of public participation did not allow anyone to falsify the vote in any significant way."

Subari concluded that it is therefore "possible to say that the final result that will emerge will more or less reflect the real attitudes held by the population."