TBILISI, Georgia: Georgia’s American-allied president won re-election over the weekend and avoided a runoff election in this small former Soviet state by a margin of 1 percent of the vote, according to official results released Sunday.
The main opposition candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, did not concede the election and on Sunday he claimed that fraud had tainted the results. He called for street protests, threatening a muddy the outcome.
The campaign organization of Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated leader close to the Bush administration, had already claimed victory on the basis of on exit polling during the election Saturday. International observers called the vote free “in essence” but cited violations.
This normally wouldn’t matter much, but bearing in mind the narrowness of Saakashvili’s final score (52.21 as of 8 Jan) this can be significant.
The perception of the fairness of the vote was important because the Bush administration has cited Saakashvili’s government as an example of democratic success in a region where that has been scarce.
The country is important to the United States as an ally in the Iraq war. Georgia has deployed 2,000 soldiers in Iraq and is the third-largest contributor of troops there, after only the United States and Britain.
Saakashvili, 40, a graduate of Columbia University, had about one year left in his five-year term, but he called the election early in hopes of winning a new mandate to govern after he ordered a police crackdown on protests and declared a state of emergency Nov. 7. In the dispersing of demonstrators, more than 500 people were wounded, none fatally.
Immediately after authorities shut down Imedi, the main opposition TV channel.
Gachechiladze said Sunday that a second round of voting should be held and called for indefinite street protests to contest the results, if his concerns were not addressed. The turnout was modest and peaceful at a protest Sunday on a snowy square in the city and dispersed by early afternoon on a major holiday in
Georgia. Christmas eve on the Orthodox Christian calendar.
“We have won despite pressure, despite intimidation, despite televised terror exerted against us,” Gachechiladze said at the rally of several thousand people.
A statement by the observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the vote “in essence consistent with most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections.” But it noted violations.
At a news conference in Tbilisi on Sunday, Alcee Hastings, a Democratic congressman from Florida (they’d know all about violations) and coordinator of the agency’s mission, declined to say whether the violations had been significant enough to upset Saakashvili’s margin, noting that the vote count was still incomplete.
Observers recorded apparent cases of the same individual’s voting more than once at 12 polling stations, according to the statement, and noted that in 3 percent of precincts visited the ballot boxes had notbeen properly sealed.
Giorgi Kandelaki, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said in response to the report: “To our knowledge, there were very few violations that could be regarded as serious.”
Now for some analysis.
1) Whether or not there was fraud, the opposition are a bunch of idiots. Their only hope was to unite around one candidate and they failed to do that.
2) It is doubtful whether this opposition, even if it had somehow made its way to power, would have been any more favorably disposed towards Russia. Badri Patarkatsishvili is wanted for corruption in Russia and Irakli Okruashvili has threatened to use force to re-establish Georgian control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of whose populations overwhelmingly support independence.
3) In fact the main policy difference between Saakashvilli and opposition is that economically, Saakashvilli is a pro-growth neo-liberal while the opposition wants more investment into social services.
4) So Saakashvilli’s claims that the opposition is materially supported by Russia is highly suspect and aimed at a Western audience (infowar). Russia’s only interest here is to stir up instability. If that’s the case, it has been mildly successful and helped in its endevour above all by Saakashvili himself.
5) It is interesting to compare OSCE’s and Council of Europe’s treatment of the Russian 2007 parliamentary elections and Georgian 2008 presidential elections. The main complaint – the media environment – was exactly the same. (With the closure and taming of Imedi, the media environment in Georgia was heavily pro-gov’t). Furthermore, the only real complaint they made with Georgia, that Saakashvili’s political power and campaign overlapped, is exactly the same as the complaints about United Russia’s usage of ‘administrative resources’ to influence the election.
6) Saakashvili’s governing style is semi-authoritarian, like Putin’s. Only one of them gets intensely criticized by the West for it, though, illustrating their hypocrisy and double standards. This is, however, a digression and a topic for a future post.
7) The election coincided with a referendum. 61% of Georgians voted in favor of joining NATO and 18% were against. I will venture a guess that Georgia will be in by 2010 (Saakashvilli and the opposition are united on this), provided that:
a) election irregularities turn out to be very minor or are successfully concealed.
b) the country maintains a basic democratic tradition (i.e. no coups or magnoliophytic revolutions).
c) they don’t do something stupid, like invading S. Ossetia on their own.
d) we see the chances of an open Russian intervention as very slim – how that will go is beyond us.
Some more goodies…
The coalition backing Levan Gachechiladze, the principal opposition candidate, said that they had uncovered violations that invalidated up to 100,000 votes, more than the margin of Mr Saakashvili’s first-round victory.
Recall that the Central Election Commission gave Saakashvili 52.21%. Now 2.21% of the 1,912,943 voters is 42,300. (All figures from the Central Election Committee). If the above is true, and assuming most of the violations were pro-government (a fair assumption given these reports), then Saakashvili’s lead could have been exaggerated by as much as 5% – which would mean a runoff. The figure is also quite similar to that of Ukraine in 2004, with Yanukovich’s fraudulent win over Yushenko.
Party officials told The Times that they had uncovered many discrepancies between vote protocols submitted to the Central Election Commission (CEC) from Georgia’s 3,511 electoral precincts and records collected by their own monitors.
Kakha Kukava, a member of parliament with the Conservative Party of Georgia, which backs Mr Gachechiladze, showed two examples where numbers had been altered to increase Mr Saakashvili’s total and reduce those of his rival.
A bundle of 200 ballot papers — all in favour of Mr Saakashvili and stamped with an official seal — were in a plastic bag on his table. Mr Kukava said that a supporter of Mr Saakashvili had been prevented from stuffing them into a ballot box at a precinct in western Georgia.
The claims were impossible to verify but they indicated the depth of opposition hostility towards Mr Saakashvili. Mr Gachechiladze has refused to admit defeat despite appeals from international monitors for all sides to respect the result of Saturday’s election.
If the West likes the result (Saakashvili wins), elections should be recognized. If the West doesn’t like the result and there were violations (Ukraine 2004, Shevardnadze 2003), elections shouldn’t be recognized. If the West doesn’t like the result and there were no violations (Putin, Chavez, Hamas), huff and puff a lot, then grudgingly recognize. (But not in the case of Hamas – that’s going way, WAY, too far!). If the West likes the result, but there were egregious violations (Nazarbayev, Aliyev), to hell with democracy anyway! That just about sums it all up.
“We want a second round of voting and we will stay on the streets until we get it. The protests will only grow bigger if our demands are ignored,” Mr Kukava said.
Mr Saakashvili called the early election to restore his credibilty after international protests at his use of riot police, firing teargas and rubber bullets, to break up opposition demonstrations in November.
He struck a conciliatory tone today (don’t they all?) and sought to play down political divisions, saying that he would seek to build consensus with the opposition. “In any normal European country if somebody gets more than 50 per cent outright in the first round, it is called a landslide and I don’t see why Georgia should be otherwise,” he said.
Except that you got more than 50% by one or two % – if at all.
The CEC said that it had received complaints about procedures at 70 precincts but that only 10 had been found to involve serious violations. Political parties were entitled to ask the courts to order a recount in any disputed precinct.
A watchdog group, the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, said that it had filed 230 complaints and called on the CEC to invalidate results from 30 polling stations. However, the group, which fielded 400 election observers, said that there were no mass violations and that the election “was held properly and is valid”.
That is 0.85% of all polling stations, by the way. And possibly the tip of the iceberg.
International observers reached broadly the same conclusion. Alcee Hastings, a US congressman, who led monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, declared the election a “triumphant step” for democracy in Georgia.
The European Union was more circumspect. Javier Solana, its foreign policy chief, congratulated Georgians for “the peaceful conduct of truly competitive presidential elections” but urged a full investigation into all allegations of irregularities and made no mention of Mr Saakashvili.
Mr Gachechiladze’s side claimed that he had won about 36 per cent compared with 43 per cent for Mr Saakashvili. Its tallies covered only about a third of districts so far, however.
Mr Gachechiladze beat Mr Saakashvili easily in the capital, Tbilisi, a reflection of public outrage at the police violence in November. Final results will be confirmed on January 13, but Mr Saakashvili was confident enough of victory to invite his close ally Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian Prime Minister, to his inauguration on January 20.
…but Mr Yanukovich was confident enough of victory to invite his close ally Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, to his inauguration… The Orange Revolution happened a few days later.