This article was updated at 5:32 AM EST.
For weeks, there have been fears of protests, civil disorder, even a Russian attack. But, in the end, October 1, the day of Georgia’s parliamentary elections, proved relatively quiet, held amid summer-like weather. Yet the broad discrepancy of exit poll numbers seemed sure to fuel controversy in the coming days and weeks.
As the Central Election Commission prepared to issue preliminary official results, dueling claims of victory by the competing political forces created uncertainty early on October 2. Control of the parliament appeared set to come down to the outcomes of single-mandate, first-past-the-post contests -- the types of races that could require recounts and days of haggling.
With 25.17 percent of polling stations counted, preliminary
results released by the Central Election Commission on October 2 showed billionaire
Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition Georgian Dream coalition in a comfortable lead in the
proportional vote (53.19 percent) compared with President Mikheil Saakashvili’s
United National Movement (41.51 percent).
Three small opposition parties – the Christian Democratic
Movement (2.31 percent), the Labor Party (1.33 percent) and the New Rights
Party (0.53 percent) -- make up the remainder, but so far appear not to have
met the five-percent threshold to enter parliament.
In the 58 of the 72 first-past-the-post races for which preliminary results have been posted, the Georgian Dream, with 31 seats, appeared to have a tight lead over the United National Movement (UNM), with 27 seats. In Kutaisi, the central Georgian city that will be the seat of the new parliament and has undergone extensive reconstruction, the Georgian Dream appeared to be leading by more than 10 percentage points. The coalition was leading in the mineral-spa town of Borjomi, a focus of an aggressive government tourism campaign, by roughly 16 percentage points, and in the Black Sea port city of Poti by some 30 percentage points. The capital, Tbilisi, as expected, also appears to have gone to the Georgian Dream.
The vote marks the first substantive challenge to the almost nine-year grip on power held by the UNM. The Georgian Dream, bankrolled by Ivanishvili, had mounted a vigorous challenge to the UNM.
The stakes in the October 1 vote are especially high. Under a constitutional change, the bulk of political power in the South Caucasus country should pass in October 2013 from the president to a prime minister. The prime minister, in turn, is to be the leader of the party that enjoys the most representation in parliament, as determined by the October 1 election results.
The election has been billed as a political coming-of-age for Georgia. But the campaign proved to be an arduous experience, marked by derisive and aggressive campaigning, violence, scandals and fear-mongering. And the immediate post-vote situation is fraught with emotion.
Various exit polls indicated that Georgian Dream outpolled the incumbent UNM in proportional voting. For all the polls, however, methodology was a concern: most did not provide basic information, such as sample size. In addition, as many as one-third of respondents in some polls declined to reveal their voting preferences.
In televised remarks, Saakashvili indicated that exit polls showed the Georgian Dream coalition as gaining more popular support than his own UNM. Voters in Tbilisi favored the Georgian Dream, while those in many regions supported the UNM, Saakashvili suggested. But, Saakashvili went on to emphasize, the UNM did well in first-past-the-post races. The president also sounded a conciliatory note, apparently aiming to keep mutual animosity between the competing political forces in check. “We're all Georgians, we're all citizens," he said.
“We should all stand together and we should all manage to work together within the framework of the existing democratic system, despite the fact that the election campaign was tense, emotional, and unfortunately often dirty too,” Saakashvili continued. “This should be left behind and we should manage to represent the interests of all citizens of all regions of Georgia in the new Parliament."
Underscoring the high level of tension, late on September 30, unsubstantiated allegations surfaced that the UNM had been involved in the death of an infant relative of a Georgian Dream activist. Both government officials and UNM representatives rebuffed the allegations, and called for a thorough investigation into the death.
More than 1,600 international experts were monitoring the election.
UNM leaders expressed confidence that the governing party could retain a majority in the next parliament, thanks to a strong showing in first-past-the-post elections for individual parliamentary seats. According to the UNM’s own numbers, their candidates won 53 of 73 first-past-the-post races.
Late on October 1, however, Ivanishvili addressed supporters and claimed that the Georgian Dream coalition would be entitled to 100 of parliament’s 150 seats. “We are winning in all [single-mandate] constituencies, except of Samtskhe-Javakheti [region] and are winning with a large margin,” the Civil Georgia news website quoted Ivanishvili as saying. Ivanishvili also urged his supporters to remain disciplined and calm.
Heading into the vote, Saakashvili said October 1 represented an “historic day” that would decide Georgia’s future. “This choice will affect not only the current generation, but many future generations as well,” Saakashvili said after casting his ballot in a downtown Tbilisi polling station, together with his wife, Sandra Roelofs, and six-year-old son, Nikolozi.
Meanwhile, his rival, Ivanishvili, predicted victory for the six-party coalition, the Georgian Dream. “We will receive no less than two-thirds of the seats in parliament … if the elections are ideal,” he told voters after his wife, Eka, cast her ballot at a Tbilisi kindergarten. “I don’t have a hope that will be the case.”
Ivanishvili, a French citizen who lost his Georgian citizenship in 2011 and has declined a constitutional amendment intended to reinstate his voting rights, did not cast a ballot.
Eight hours into the voting, the Central Election Commission reported that no major violations had occurred. But allegations of misconduct from 62,115 registered local observers were widespread, with reports of insufficient ballots the most frequently cited complaint.
In the central Georgian town of Khashuri, Transparency International Georgia, though, reported the entrance of armed special forces into polling stations in an apparent attempt to change the vote count. Observers were allegedly removed from the buildings. Armed men and gunfire were reported at other locations. The Interior Ministry denied the use of police for such a purpose. The Central Election Commission, however, has annulled results from two precincts in the area. Other allegations included the standard complaints of voter intimidation, carousel voting and ballots allegedly pre-marked in favor of the United National Movement.
A pre-election campaign report, presented on September 29 by Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy slammed both the governing party and the Georgian Dream for attempted “bribing” of voters with various resources*.
The organizations also chided the UNM for abusing its power as the incumbent party and creating an “unequal playing field.”
In Gldani, the working-class Tbilisi suburb that was at the heart of the prison abuse scandal that rocked the country earlier in September, polling precincts were calm, but crowded with voters.
At polling station #81, 54-year-old schoolteacher Manana Davitaia, who has served as a CEC polling station representative for the past decade, said that turnout was unusually high – nearly half of the 1,490 registered voters had cast ballots by 2pm. She attributed the uptick in voter participation to the weeks of intense campaigning, rather than the prison scandal.
“Some of them like the president and some of them like the opposition -- that is why they are coming,” Davitaia said.
Relaxing in a park near two polling stations, 62-year-old pensioner Natelia Osinashvili declined to discuss her choice for parliament. After weeks of emotional upheavals, the relative tranquility of the balmy, sun-filled day was enough.
“I am very happy because everything has been calm,” she said.-----Transparency International Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association receive funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation. EurasiaNet.org is financed by the New-York-City-based Open Society Foundation, a separate part of the network of Open Society Foundations.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.