With surging hopes in an almost festive atmosphere, Georgians flocked to the polls Sunday to choose a replacement for former President Eduard Shevardnadze, who was driven from office in a peaceful revolt six weeks ago.
Nearly everyone emerging from the voting booths in this dirt-poor agricultural town 30 miles northeast of the capital Tbilisi said they cast their ballots for Mikhael Saakashvili, a former New York attorney turned fiery opposition leader. Early exit polls suggested the same trend was holding throughout much of the country, as Georgians embraced the promise of sweeping change after a decade of economic stagnation, corruption, and widespread poverty under Mr. Shevardnadze.
"We hope a new president will bring us a normal life at last," said Dali Rostomashvili, who held hands with her husband, Givi, as they explained why they'd voted for Mr. Saakashvili. "We grow all our own food in our garden, just to keep from going hungry," she said. "We really need a better life."
Sagarejo, a quiet community of 50,000 in the shadow of the snow-peaked Caucasus mountains, has seen most local industry shut down over the past decade, and even its famous grape-growing business has plunged into decline for lack of markets and investment. About half the male population here is unemployed, local officials say, and those lucky enough to have jobs earn an average of $1 per day.
On election day, hundreds of people thronged the town's tree-lined streets in the bright winter sunshine. "I don't know anyone who doesn't support Saakashvili," said Misha Davitelashvili, an unemployed construction worker, after casting his ballot. "We hope he will open the factories, fight corruption, and give us a new life. The people are with him, so he will succeed."
At one of Sagarejo's polling stations, 210 out of about 700 registered voters had cast ballots by midday, every single one for Saakashvili, says Teona Sekhniashvili, a researcher who is part of a nationwide exit poll being conducted by the nongovernmental, internationally funded Institute for Polling and Marketing. "The [five] other candidates simply have no presence here."
Saakashvili, a former protégé of Shevardnadze, quit his post as justice minister two years ago and launched an opposition movement. In the wake of last November's parliamentary elections, condemned as fraudulent by international observers, he led three weeks of escalating street protests in Tbilisi that culminated in Shevardnadze's resignation.
Not everyone is overjoyed at prospects of a Saakashvili-led Georgia. Regarded by backers as a canny and charismatic leader and by critics as an unscrupulous populist, the telegenic, US-educated Saakashvili has moved rapidly to exploit the near-total defeat and disarray of Shevardnadze's forces.
"All the Georgian politicians who might have seriously opposed Saakashvili have chosen not to make a fight in this election," says Per Gahrton, a Swedish member of the European Parliament who was observing the voting in Sagarejo on Sunday. "So there is only one serious candidate in the running. In fact, one of the fears in Saakashvili's camp is that the vote will be too high in his favor; they know that a Soviet-style 95 percent victory will immediately create suspicions."
Since the November "Rose Revolution" that overthrew Shevardnadze, the new government headed by a Saakashvili ally, Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burdjanadze, has labored to clean up unreliable Shevardnadze-era voter lists and replace local electoral commissions that were widely perceived as corrupt and biased. The United States and European Union contributed millions of dollars to help bankrupt Georgia conduct the election.
"I think they've done a pretty good job of making the elections free and fair," says Mr. Gahrton, who has visited many times over the past decade. "Unlike the parliamentary elections last November, I haven't seen any serious irregularities in this one."
Saakashvili's problems may begin only after the voting is over, according to analysts. "We all hope this will be a new beginning for Georgia," says Peter Mamradze, Shevardnadze's former presidential chief of staff, who has retained his job under the new government. "The expectations of the Georgian people are very high, and it would be a sin to disappoint them."
Controversy has flared over Saakashvili's election rhetoric, which includes a pledge to quickly double wages and pensions, jail corrupt officials, and force Georgia's handful of superrich to publicly disclose the sources of their wealth.
He has also worried some observers with his tough promise to force two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to bow to Tbilisi's rule. Saakashvili visited South Ossetia last week and warned its leaders that this would be the last Georgian election from which the breakaway ethnic territory would be able to abstain. "This problem [separatism] will be brought under control," Saakashvili said.
But, at least when speaking in perfect English with foreign journalists, Saakashvili denies any such dramatic gestures. "Georgia is a European country. We have core European values and historic aspirations to join Europe," he says. "Our goal is to join NATO and the European Union, and I think this will happen very soon."
Even Shevardnadze claimed to have cast his ballot for the revolutionary leader who drove him out of office. "[Saakashvili] is young, he has a lot of energy, and is well educated. He has the skill of communicating with people," Shevardnadze said. But he added: "He should talk less and work more. Enough of populism. There is a great deal that needs to be done."