Mikheil Saakashvili’s bitter victory

Robert Parsons
11 January 2008

The international community may have given its (albeit qualified) seal of approval to Mikheil Saakashvili's contested victory in Georgia's presidential elections on 5 January 2008, but Georgia itself is bitterly divided over the outcome. The official figures conclude that Saakashvili, the incumbent, received 53.38% of the vote against 25.66% for the main opposition candidate, Levan Gachechiladze. But the opposition has refused to accept the validity of this result; Gachechiladze says he has been robbed of the second-round play-off that would have ensued on 19 January if Saakashvili had fallen below the 50% mark. The emotional temperature in the capital, Tbilisi - where Gachechiladze beat the president into second place - is particularly high.

The deep divisions threaten to unhinge the real progress Georgia has made towards institutional, democratic and economic reform since the "rose revolution" of 2003-04 (see "Georgia: progress, interrupted", 16 November 2007). They also suggest that one of the purposes of Saakashvili's decision to hold elections earlier than scheduled - to defuse the tensions in the country revealed by the demonstrations of November 2007 - has not been met.

The president's bridge

To step from one political camp to another in Tbilisi in post-election week has been to encounter two totally incompatible versions of reality. Mikheil Saakashvili is speaking of a brilliant victory, while the opposition can barely contain its fury at what it calls massive electoral fraud. The view of international observers is that fraud indisputably took place but that it was not sufficient to alter the outcome of the election.

Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:

"Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

"Georgia: progress, interrupted"(16 November 2007)

"Georgia's race to the summit"(4 January 2008)  The backing of international authorities is crucial to Saakasvhili, making it inconceivable that he will accept the opposition's demand that a second-round contest between himself and Gachechiladze should take place.

There are signs, though, that the president understands the need to engage the opposition in a genuine dialogue. On the night of 6 January, the start of the Orthodox Christmas, Saakashvili made a point of going to shake Gachechiladze's hand at a church service in Tbilisi's Sameba cathedral. He went further in an interview on Georgia's Rustavi 2 television: first by acknowledging the many Georgians who voted against him, and second by saying (in an echo of the approach of France president, Nicolas Sarkozy) that in his second term he wanted to bring people of all political persuasions into government.

A meeting between Saakashvili and Gachechiladze on 10 January, however, suggests that the gulf between the two camps is wider than ever. The opposition leader pressed his theme of "persisting injustice" highlighted by the election outcome, and rebuffed the president's offers of cooperation.

Gachechiladze may insist that Saakashvili must accede to the demand for a second round of voting, but in reality his options are limited. He cannot compromise because he owes his support not to any policies he might have - he has outlined very few - but to his apparently unquenchable hatred of Saakashvili.

This means that in the immediate future, the opposition will try to persuade the courts of its case. Its leaders say they have documented evidence of massive fraud at the mid-level counting stage in the districts, whose scale is sufficient to bring Saakasvhili's percentage of the vote below the 50% level needed to win outright in the first round. A large part of the population appears to believe them.

The opposition will also try to put pressure the on the courts - which few, even on the government side, trust - through demonstrations. A return to the streets is already being prepared; the authorities have given official permission for a public protest to be held in central Tbilisi on 13 January.

Such a course carries its own problems. No one wants a repeat of the violence of 7 November 2007, when the police dispersed a big opposition demonstration in the centre of Tbilisi. The consequences of a new round of street mobilisation are unpredictable and could be dangerous.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Georgian politics:

Neal Ascherson, " Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road"(15 July 2005)

Donald Rayfield, " Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

George Hewitt, " Abkhazia: land in limbo"(10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, " Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Donald Rayfield, " Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions"(24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, " Georgia: politics after revolution"(14 November 2007) If the opposition's tactical options are limited - and will narrow even further if (as is likely) it is defeated in the courts - its anger is barely containable. This was illustrated in the way opposition leaders (Gachechiladze among them) confronted the chairman of Georgia's central electoral commission, Levan Tarkhnishvili, on 8 January. They surrounded Tarkhnishvili, demanded his resignation, screamed at him that he was a liar, an enemy of the people, a petty fraudster and a cheat, and that when they came to power they would punish him for his crimes.

The opposition's choice

For his own part, Mikheil Saakashvili - no mean operator in the language of political denunciation - wishes now to project the image of standing above the anger and appealing to the opposition to cooperate with him. This approach will strike a chord among the majority of Georgians, who want to avoid violence at all costs.

This leaves the opposition with a core dilemma: to accept the need for peace with Saakashvili (including perhaps the lure of posts in the government) in the interests of the country and national conciliation, or to reject his offers and risk being portrayed as endangering the state and national security.

There are political risks in either choice, which could damage the opposition in the approach to the next electoral test: the parliamentary elections due in April or May 2008. Its best option now may be to accept the courts' decision - whatever it might be - and focus on defeating Saakashvili's United National Movement in the parliamentary ballot.

If they avoid escalating tensions, there is every chance they will be able to utilise popular scepticism about the outcome of the presidential election to win a sizeable victory. At the same time, an advance of this kind would require the opposition to convince an increasingly nervous electorate that there is more to their strategy than a deep-seated animosity towards Saakashvili.

If they can do that - and an avoidance of the sort of incendiary language that has marked their pre- and post-election public statements might be a good start - there is no doubt that the opposition parties have a good chance of success in the April or May election. Saakashvili's emphasis on reconciliation since the 5 January vote shows he recognises the need to engage more with the Georgian people, but he has little time left in which to build more enduring support around such a  stance.

In the presidential election, he won at least as much because of the failings of the opposition as of his own record in office. In a parliamentary election, where the future of the country is less at stake, he may find that voters are prepared to take more risks.

Indeed, beyond the immediate circumstances of the presidential election there is little doubt that popular dissatisfaction with the Saakasvhili government runs deep. The president has significant achievements to his credit - among them the strengthening of state institutions, the reform of the police and armed forces, the return of universal electricity, major improvement of the national infrastructure and the payment of pensions on time. But Saakashvili the man, a naturally combative politician, stirs strong emotions.

He will have noted that the bedrock of opposition to him was the capital, Tbilisi, and that within the city the most vehement opposition there was centred on the middle-class districts such as Vera, Vake, Mtatsminda and Saburtalo. Their residents are people who recognise the advances Georgia has made, but are fed up with being patronised and ridiculed by a government that appears dismissive of alternative views, and fearful too of the increasingly intrusive nature of state surveillance.

Mikheil Saakashvili has acknowledged his mistakes in Tbilisi - in particular the need for more defence of property rights - but he still has a lot of ground to make up, probably too much for his United National Movement to win in the spring elections. Georgia's political carousel may have other winners and losers before then.

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