Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat in Georgia's parliamentary election in a televised address to the nation on October 2, a move that should lead to the country's first democratic change of power since its independence from the Soviet Union. Saakashvili pledged, however, that his United National Movement (UNM) would continue to fight for progress as an opposition party.
"After summarizing the preliminary results of parliamentary elections, it is obvious that the coalition Georgian Dream has gained an advantage in these elections," Saakashvili said. "You know well that the views of this coalition were and still are fundamentally unacceptable for me. There are very deep differences between us and we believe that their views are extremely wrong, but democracy works in a way that the Georgian people make decisions by majority. That's what we of course respect very much."
Georgians took their frustrations with the ruling party to the ballot box, voting overwhelmingly on October 1 for the opposition coalition Georgian Dream, according to initial results - an election that will pave the way for its first new government since the 2003 Rose Revolution swept President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) into power.
An hour after polls closed, Saakashvili admitted his UNM had lost the popular vote, but believed it held a sizeable piece of the parliament. As results came in on October 2, however, it became clear the Georgian Dream held the upper hand. The Georgian parliament is a split system, which is comprised of a popular vote (77 seats) and single-mandate districts (73 seats). All parties that pass the 5% threshold receive six seats, plus whatever seats they win in the single-mandate districts.
While voting was largely calm across the country, there were reports that the situation in Khashuri turned violent overnight when masked men broke into a polling station and, reportedly, the police sent in special forces to deal with protesters. The Central Election Commission has already announced plans to annul results from two polling stations affected by the violence; international observers pledged to release their findings later in the day.
A post-Saakashvili future
The exit polls, however, were all that mattered to a jubilant opposition. Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, celebrated "victory" just 15 minutes after the polls closed.
With horns honking around the city, and cheering crowds in the streets, Ivanishvili praised the president's remarks, but asked his supporters to remain "calm". "There was violence, there was a lie, there was everything [during the campaign], but today we should manage to unite, to forget any resentment and build united Georgia," he said. "It is quite clear that entire Georgia wants to celebrate today... but we should avoid any confrontation. They all are our brothers; those, who marked number '5' [a vote for the UNM] are also our brothers; do not harm anybody; do not confront anybody. Let's stand together and strengthen our country."
While the election does not directly affect President Saakashvili, it sets the stage for Georgia's post-Saakashvili future: the party that controls the parliament after the October 1 vote will be in position to name the country's new, uber powerful prime minister in January when Georgia moves from a presidential system to a parliamentary republic.
The president and his inner circle have outwardly embraced the competitiveness of the election; after voting in the morning, Saakashvili told the nation on October 1 that it was a "historic" day that will set the tone for Georgia's future. Smiling for the cameras - even joking with operators from Ukraine - the president sought to put a positive spin on the election. "In decisive moments, our people have always made the right decision," Saakashvili said, stressing the "fate" of the country will be decided at the election.
Ivanishvili, a possible contender for prime minister, however, predicted total defeat for the ruling party. In remarks on October 1, Ivanishvili even hinted the UNM would stoop to election violations to keep their hold on power. "If elections are ideal - I don't have a hope that will be the case - there is a high probability that the [UNM] won't even enter into the parliament," he boasted. "No one wants to even hear about them, I am sure even many of those who are regarded as their team will not vote for them."
While both the ruling party and Georgian Dream have pledged to honour the result of a free and fair election, the frenzied and scandalous pre-election period has left lingering scars on both the parties. Saakashvili and his party faced a scandalous prison abuse video that rocked the country - and his support base - and led to two ministers resigning and mass protests. The ruling party issued its own tapes, which allegedly depicted members of the Georgian Dream discussing vote buying and other sins in private discussions.
The president and his team launched a massive, last-minute effort to sterilize the party's soiled image in the days leading up to the election: Saakashvili traversed the nation, opening a new airport in Kutaisi on September 27 and a newly renovated cathedral in Poti over the weekend. Ivanishvili's response was to hold two massive demonstrations on September 28, bringing out thousands of supporters in both Tbilisi and Kutaisi. The march in Tbilisi filled Rustaveli Avenue, the capital's main street, and its largest city square.
In politics by numbers, a popular game in Georgia, the sheer number of Ivanishvili's supporters seemed to undermine the ruling party's chances at the polls, but Saakashvili is claiming the ultimate victory is for Georgia itself. "This choice will affect not only the current generation, but many future generations as well," he said. "Georgia - and I am not speaking about victory of political parties - Georgia will definitely win."
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