The Georgian president, whose own reelection in January was dogged by claims of irregularities, was well aware of the cost if his country's May 21 parliamentary vote was deemed anything less than free and fair. His country's NATO bid. Western support on Abkhazia. A line of defense against Russia. And his reputation as a democrat, both at home and abroad.
At the same time, Saakashvili desperately needed his party, the United National Movement, to score a definitive win. The recent rise of an energetic, if fractious, opposition had for the first time cast Saakashvili's hold on power in doubt. Chastened by the global scolding that followed his crackdown on antigovernment protests in November, Saakashvili had sought to make space for the opposition -- but not at the cost of his own party and political program.
So the challenge was not just to win. It was to win clean. Saakashvili forcefully called on public officials not to falsify results, not to intimidate voters, and not to interfere with the democratic process. And yet allegations of voters being bullied, pressured, and cajoled began coming in even before the ballots were cast.
A woman in Tbilisi whose son was being held in police custody was told by local officials that she could secure his freedom by rustling up 1,500 votes from neighbors on behalf of the National Movement.
A school director in the Sachkhere region in western Georgia published an open letter alleging that he and other education officials were pressured into mobilizing teachers and parents to get out the vote for the ruling party.
In the eastern Georgian region of Kvemo Kartli, a video surreptitiously taken with a mobile phone showed election commission officials accompanying citizens into voting booths as they cast their ballots. The video was later broadcast on Georgian television.
These are not isolated incidents. Numerous similar cases, all verified by election monitors and by RFE/RL correspondents on the ground, have been reported throughout the country.
So what happened? Why do Georgian officials continue to tamper with elections even when the stakes are so clearly spelled out, and so terribly high? Unfortunately, in a young democracy like Georgia's, old antidemocratic habits die hard.
Despite the very public presidential commands to let the democratic process take its natural course, far too many local officials appeared to follow their tried-and-true blueprint of using any and all methods to get out the vote for the ruling party. Maybe they saw Saakashvili's protestations as just a wink and a nod. Or maybe such behavior is part of their political DNA.
How much did the pre-election shenanigans affect the final result? Herein lies the tragedy. Most credible public-opinion polls showed the United National Movement was headed for a comfortable, fair-and-square win. Perhaps not the two-thirds constitutional majority it ultimately achieved, but a solid win nonetheless. No backstage string pulling required.
The opposition all but ensured this result by going into the election divided. The largest antigovernment bloc, the United Opposition, was long on bluster but had no central program to speak of, other than calling for Saakashvili's ouster. Rather than circling the wagons and building up a true political alternative, the United Opposition, the center-left Labor Party, and the center-right Republicans instead wasted much of the campaign trading insults and allegations among themselves.
United Opposition leaders Davit Gamkrelidze and Levan Gachechiladze did their best to discredit the vote in advance by saying that they would interpret any result other than a win for their party as evidence of falsification. They have made good on that promise, and -- together with other opposition leaders -- have vowed to boycott the new parliament. On May 26, tens of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in central Tbilisi.
They probably would have done so anyway. But the well-documented accounts of voter intimidation by local and international monitors gives this unruly opposition a degree of legitimacy that it clearly does not deserve.
So Georgia is back in a familiar spot. A vicious cycle of recrimination, gridlock, and predictable post-Soviet chaos.
International observers have noted -- despite harshly worded concerns over the rigging claims -- that the elections were a dramatic improvement over past votes, including Saakashvili's reelection in January. Some even suggested they were the cleanest in Georgian history.
But for a country that aspires to join the elite clubs of Western democracies -- in deed, and not merely in name -- that's not quite good enough. It's not just Saakashvili who needed these elections to sparkle. All of Georgia did.
David Kakabadze is the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service. Brian Whitmore is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL