Georgian Elections: The Nation’s Ultimate Test

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Georgia’s governing United National Movement (UNM), led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, led by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, both claimed victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

Violence—somewhat of a political tradition—is so far absent. Saakashvili already admitted that the opposition had won a majority of the party list vote, which elects roughly half of parliamentary seats.

There seem to have been no severe electoral violations during the elections, according to the Central Election Commission and Organization for Security and Cooperation delegation, which called them “very competitive.”

The campaign environment was polarized and tense. It often centered on the advantages of incumbency on one side and private financial assets on the other, rather than on concrete political platforms and programs.

While freedoms of association, assembly, and expression were respected overall, instances of harassment and intimidation of party activists and supporters negatively affected the campaign environment and often ended with detentions and fines of mostly opposition-affiliated campaigners. This contributed to an atmosphere of distrust among contestants.

Now the fun of cobbling together a parliamentary majority really begins. With 25 percent of the party votes counted, Georgian Dream had secured 53 percent of the vote, while the UNM had 41 percent, although the ruling party is reportedly winning in the single-mandate constituencies.

A loss would signal a hiatus for Saakashvili’s political career, as his presidential term is scheduled to end in 2013. More importantly, parliamentary elections in Georgia became a litmus test for democratic governance in the former Soviet space. Georgia passed the test, looking better than Belarus, Russia, and other nearby countries.

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The contrast is sharp when compared with latest presidential and parliamentary elections in Russia, where thousands of violations were reported.

Saakashvili—a staunch U.S. ally who, since becoming president in 2003, has focused on developing Western democratic institutions—proved that his reforms bore fruit, even at the price of his own party possibly losing power. Unlike the United Russia Party, the Georgian ruling party seems to have made to no attempt to “fix” the election.

Few predicted the scope of the loss for the UNM, even when in late September the videos of abuse in the Georgian prisons became a huge national scandal and sparked anti-government protests. Smuggled jail videos broadcasted on national television showed inmates being beaten and sexually abused by guards. According to polls, support for the ruling party soon dropped by 20 percent.

Still, rural areas voted overwhelmingly for the ruling party. Perhaps in those areas people still remember how life had been more difficult before Saakashvili came to power.

For now, Saakashvili would prefer to execute an elegant departure from the political scene and be remembered as a successful reformer of his ancient and beautiful country. He announced that he is ready to work with Georgian Dream until the end of his presidential term.

The impending power transition is a real test for Georgia, whose political elites should ensure domestic peace. It is important not to repeat the mistakes of Ukraine, which fell under greater influence of Moscow after President Victor Yushchenko and then-Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution, were defeated by Victor Yanukovich in January 2010.

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As Ivanishvili was a successful businessman in Russia, one may expect that the relations between Tbilisi and Moscow will improve. It is even possible that Georgian wine and the famous Borjomi mineral water will be allowed once again to sell in the Russian markets. At the same time, it is unlikely that the new government in 2013 will fundamentally change its position toward the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that the Georgian people’s opinions would change overnight.

It is also too early to predict whether the Georgian Dream government would abandon Saakashvili’s goals of Euro-Atlantic integration. For now, Georgia’s friends hope that it will remain a pillar of democracy and market reforms in the far-away Caucasus.

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