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Georgia: Presidential Election Leaves Bitter Aftertaste

Mikheil Saakashvili exits a polling booth on January 5 (AFP) The preterm Georgian presidential election on January 5, intended to provide a ringing endorsement of incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili's track record, has instead underscored the extent to which his support has plummeted since his election in January 2004.

In that respect, Saakashvili's decision to call a preterm election may have been a major strategic error. Moreover, Saakashvili's moralizing tone during the election campaign and the handling of controversial exit polls have further alienated the opposition and fuelled suspicions that the authorities rigged the outcome of the ballot to preclude a second round runoff between Saakashvili and his closest rival, businessman Levan Gachechiladze, representing the nine-party opposition National Council. In short, at every stage of the election campaign, Saakashvili has acted in such a way as to compound the opposition's fears that his team was out to secure his reelection at all cost.

In the weeks preceding the ballot, the opposition repeatedly complained that Saakashvili was unfairly using state resources to promote his candidacy. Ambassador Dieter Boden, who headed the OSCE long-term monitoring mission, admitted in mid- December that some of the opposition's complaints were justified, and the OSCE's initial assessment of the election released late on January 6 made the point that "the implementation of social-welfare programs was frequently combined with campaigning for the former President."

The actual voting on January 5 was marred by procedural violations and allegations of flagrant malpractice. Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party, one of the members of the National Council, claimed that Saakashvili supporters were being transported in buses from one polling station to another to enable them to vote more than once, as did Labor Party candidate Shalva Natelashvili's campaign manager Giorgi Gugava. A spokesman for Saakashvili's United National Movement admitted the party hired buses to transport voters to polling stations.

Despite a formal pledge on January 5 to make available preliminary returns from all polling stations by 9 p.m. local time on January 6, 24 hours after the polls closed, the Central Election Commission was still processing protocols from the remaining 500 polling stations early on January 8. That delay in making public preliminary results recalled the protracted efforts in November 2003 to finagle the results of the parliamentary elections to secure a victory for then President Eduard Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc. Interim returns consistently showed Saakashvili with marginally over the 50 percent plus one vote needed to preclude a second round. In those circumstances, assurances by international monitors that there were "no major violations" miss the point: if Saakashvili's true share of the vote was 48-49 percent (Gachechiladze on January 6 claimed Saakashvili polled 44 percent), it would not have taken "major violations" to adjust Saakashvili's share of the vote by just a few percentage points to preclude a run-off, as Gachechiladze's supporters have alleged on the basis of documentation suggesting glaring discrepancies between protocols signed by individual precinct commission heads and the results subsequently posted on the Central Election Commission's website (

The fact that early on January 6, before any results from polling stations had been announced, Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze, who headed Saakashvili's campaign, predicted, and hailed, Saakashvili's reelection on the basis of election polls conducted by four media outlets sympathetic to the ruling regime similarly recalled then Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian's post-election television appearance on September 1996. Raising a glass of champagne, Ter-Petrossian thanked all his supporters for ensuring his reelection -- before the official results of the ballot were announced. Two years later, one of Ter-Petrossian's henchmen admitted to RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the outcome was rigged to preclude a run-off between Ter-Petrossian and his closest rival, National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian. The National Council argued in the run-up to the January 5 vote that in light of the four media outlets' shared sympathy for Saakashvili, the results of the exit polls were unlikely to be accurate and objective and, on the contrary, could be tampered with to ensure they more or less corresponded to whatever percentage of the vote the Central Election Commission decided to allot to Saakashvili.

The actual returns are at odds with Saakashvili's euphoric January 6 characterization of the vote as "brilliant." Voter turnout on January 5 was 56 percent, of whom just over half purportedly voted for Saakashvili -- a figure equal to 26-27 percent of the electorate. In 2004, by contrast, voter turnout was between 80-90 percent and Saakashvili garnered 96 percent of the vote.

International reactions too have been less than unequivocally positive. The EU Presidency in a January 8 statement underscored the need for Georgia to investigate the procedural violations registered during the voting, and to "reinforce the independence of state institutions in a political campaign environment and to strengthen the freedom and pluralism of the media, as well as the independence of the judiciary." In a separate statement the same day, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner similarly noted "important irregularities" during the vote that "need to be addressed," and she too concluded that "a strong and sustained commitment by the Georgian authorities to foster a more pluralistic and participative society is essential."

Possibly in response to that latter exhortation, Saakashvili offered in a live interview late on January 8 on one of the pro-government television channels that conducted the exit polls to bring into a reshuffled cabinet "a broader circle of people," "calm...honorable patriots and professionals." But parliamentarian Kakha Kukava of the nine-party opposition National Council that backed Gachechiladze's candidacy told the same television station on January 9 that if Saakashvili truly wants to "take a step toward his people and the opposition," he should agree to a recount to demonstrate beyond all doubts that the published results of the ballot are accurate, reported.

If, as appears likely, the Central Election Commission rejects the opposition's demands for a recount of the vote, the political climate will remain poisoned and polarized in the run-up to the preterm parliamentary elections that Saakashvili said on January 8 will probably be held in April or May.