Supporters of President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed an overwhelming victory in Georgia's March 28 parliamentary election - a vote that international observers viewed as the fairest in the country's post-Soviet history. Nevertheless, the vote left opposition parties disgruntled, and it appears likely to lead to more tension between the central government and the renegade province of Ajaria.
Preliminary returns produced by the country's Central Election Commission (CEC) on March 29 indicated that just two political blocs would clear the 7 percent electoral hurdle for securing a share of seats in the new parliament. According to the initial CEC data, Saakashvili's National Movement-Democrats bloc had 76 percent of the vote. Trailing far behind was the Right Opposition-Industrialists-New Rights bloc with 7.5 percent. Those parties lagging below the 7 percent threshold included; the Labor Party (5.4 percent); Unity, or the former Communist Party (3.8); and the Ajarian regional party, the Revival Union (0.6 percent).
A parallel vote count conducted by the non-governmental organization, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, predicted that Saakashvili supporters should end up with 68 percent of the vote. The Right Opposition should receive 7.75 percent, while the Revival Union should finish third with 6.6 percent. Among other prominent parties on the ballot, the Labor Party was projected to receive 6.1 percent and Unity 2.2 percent.
Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said March 29 the legitimacy of the election was beyond doubt despite "certain violations," the Russian Interfax news agency reported. Saakashvili portrayed the vote as being the freest ever held in an independent Georgia. "Violations at a number of polling stations did not affect the big picture of the election," Saakashvili was quoted as saying by the Itar-Tass news agency. "It is worth pointing out that no instances of violence against opposition figures have been recorded during the election campaign in any region of Georgia, with the exception of Ajaria." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Preliminary assessments by international observers largely corroborated the government's claims. "This poll was better organized and more democratic than previous ones," Matyas Eorsi, head of an observer mission sponsored by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, was quoted as saying by the Civil Georgia web site. Meanwhile, a European Parliament observer, Demetrio Volcic said that Georgian media was "able to express itself freely" during the campaign, except in Ajaria.
"The contrast with the November 2003 parliamentary elections is very substantial," Bruce George, the head of the OSCE observation team, said in a statement. "I am encouraged by the move towards greater democratization."
While satisfied with the process, some international observers voiced disappointment with the apparent results. The fact that Saakashvili supporters will dominate the next parliament "does reflect the will of the people," Eorsi said, "but cannot reflect the wide diversity of views [that are] indispensable for meaningful debates on Georgia's future."
Despite the general international endorsement of the vote, Saakashvili opponents assailed the election as suspect. The chorus of criticism was led by New Rights leader Davit Gamkrelidze, who suggested that authorities were trying to deflate his movement's vote totals. Initial vote projections gave the Right Opposition (of which New Rights is a member) roughly 5 percent of the vote. Subsequent estimates put the Right Opposition at just over the 7 percent barrier, but a New Rights statement issued March 29 insisted that the movement's share of the vote was closer to 10 percent.
"Remarks by the president and other leaders ... that the March 28 elections were democratic and fair are very far from reality," the New Rights statement said. It accused Saakashvili and his supporters of improperly using government resources to boost the vote totals of his National Movement-Democrats bloc, and of exerting pressure on local election commission officials.
"By our calculations, we have lost between 30,000-40,000 votes in voting precinct across Georgia ... due to irregularities, intimidation and changes to Precinct Election Commission protocols after the vote count," the New Rights statement said. "The next three days [of ballot counting] remain crucial to ensuring that the official results reflect the true will of the people."
Labor Party leaders also claimed that they had been robbed of votes, and vowed to organize protests. Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili said Saakashvili represented a "peril to Georgia" because of his close links to "overseas interests," the Rustavi 2 television channel reported.
Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze, who has emerged as Saakashvili's chief nemesis, also was among those heaping doubt on the election results. Abashidze claimed that Georgian media favored Saakashvili and exerted improper influence on viewers to cast their ballots for the president's supporters.
Pre-election concerns about election-related violence in Ajaria proved unfounded. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The vote in the renegade region was largely peaceful in nature, and, according to central government officials, was generally free and fair. Heading into the parliamentary vote, Ajarian authorities had a reputation for rigging votes to ensure outcomes favorable to Abashidze. On March 28, however, Saakashvili asserted that his supporters were outpolling Abashidze's Revival Union by a two-to-one margin in Ajaria.
On March 29, local Abashidze critics claimed that Ajarian officials had launched a wide-scale vote-rigging operation, aiming to boost the Revival Union's vote totals at the expense of the National Movement-Democrats' tally. Leaders of the opposition Our Ajaria movement did not provide specific details when making the vote-falsification claim.
While the vote in Ajaria appeared far freer than in elections past, many local residents were reluctant to discuss the election in general, and their preferences in particular -- apparently out of concern that overheard comments could possibly lead to reprisals. On election day, Abashidze loyalists maintained an intimidating presence in the streets of Batumi and elsewhere in Ajaria, despite the official lifting of a local state-of-emergency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Heavily armed individuals, both in civilian attire and in uniforms, patrolled the streets, in addition to Kalashnikov-toting police officers.
Saakashvili has sought to portray the parliamentary election as the population's ratification of his ambitious reform plan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We have seen very clearly what our people want" Saakashvili told reporters late on March 28. [Our people want us [the government] to carry on with these [reform] policies. ... Our people are full of hope, and this hope must be realized."
At the same time, Saakashvili sought to downplay concerns that the election results would effectively prevent the opposition from participating in debates on reform-related issues. He maintained that a broad spectrum of opinion will be heard in the next parliament, pointing out that, in addition to the Right Opposition faction, representatives from a variety of political parties won parliament seats in first-past-the-post contests in the November 2003 election, the validity of which were upheld by the country's judicial system. The courts invalidated results of the proportional portion of the November 3 election, setting the stage for March 28, which in effect was a re-vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili also extended an olive branch to his political opponents. "I would like to tell all political forces, whether or not they have cleared the 7 percent hurdle, that we are ready for dialogue and we are ready for them to get involved in political decision making at various levels and in various forms."
There would appear to be one exception to Saakashvili's blanket peace offering: Abashidze. Saakashvili indicated that he might increase the political pressure in the near future. "My main mandate is to unify Georgia. That is, above all, what the people voted for," Saakashvili said. "I would like to say that, as we have said before, we will no longer put up with the lawlessness of bandits and gangsters on the territory of the Ajarian autonomy."
"We are not in the 16th century. We will lead Georgia into the 21st century, and I will not allow the existence of feudal enclaves in any part of Georgia," Saakashvili added.
After voting on March 28, Abashidze told reporters in Batumi that he anticipated trouble with the central government. "I do not know in what manner they will do this, but they [officials in Tbilisi] will probably somehow protest against the election results [in Ajaria]," Abashidze said. "Even if we [the Revival Union] let us say for the sake of argument win only 1 percent of the vote, they will still find a pretext. Be prepared for this."
Giga Chikhladze and Irakly Chikhladze are independent journalists based in Georgia.