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Saakashvili's party loses as Georgian democracy takes step forward (+video)

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced that his party would go into opposition, after being topped by the party of Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in Monday's elections.

By Paul RimpleCorrespondent / October 2, 2012

Georgia's opposition leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, speaks to the media during a press conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

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Tsibili, Georgia

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili today conceded defeat in Monday’s parliamentary elections, ending his party’s nine-year monopoly on power. But his party's loss marks a step forward for democracy in the country, completing a transfer of power through the ballot box that is rare for post-Soviet states.

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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat Tuesday in parliamentary polls that handed a shock victory to an opposition coalition led by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Politics are always a wild ride in Georgia. These elections, between billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition and Mr. Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), were sharply partisan and severely polarized the nation. Riccardo Migliori, president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, said before the polls that there was “a little part of Leninism in this electoral campaign.”

But by 2 p.m. Tuesday, with only 26 percent of the party list votes in from the Central Election Commission, Saakashvili announced on television that his party had lost the elections and would go into opposition.

“There are very deep differences between us [UNM and Georgian Dream], and we believe that their views are extremely wrong, but democracy works in a way that Georgian people make decisions by majority,” the president said.

The 1,641 international observers monitoring the elections and 50 local organizations contributing an additional 62,115 observers helped keep the polling largely free and fair, although some isolated violations occurred in the regions.

With a peaceful transition of power looking likely, the focus now turns to what direction the new leaders will take.

A break from history?

When Saakashvili came to power in 2004, his party dominated Parliament and targeted former President Eduard Shevardnadze’s cronies, who were suspected of crimes. Many were arrested and paid enormous fines to the state coffers to escape punishment in a policy called “plea bargaining.” Mr. Shevardnadze’s son-in-law, Gia Dzhokhtaberidze, paid $15.5 million to the state budget for allegedly evading around $425,000 in taxes. 

There have been concerns that Mr. Ivanishvili will similarly clean house, although he stressed again at a press conference today that there will be no political persecution following the transfer of power, except in criminal cases. 

“All professionals will keep their jobs,” he added.

To counter Saakashvili’s rhetoric that Ivanishvili would backtrack and send the country into the arms of Russia, the billionaire reiterated that the only course for Georgia is integration with the West and NATO membership. He argues the Baltic republics have created a mutual understanding with Russia despite their NATO membership.

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