Mikhail Saakashvili's decision to resist authoritarianism and trust the democratic process, made amid his government's near collapse this fall, may not pan out as he had hoped.
With results trickling in at press time, it was uncertain whether the US-trained lawyer would outright win the snap polls he called in response to charges that he was behaving like a dictator by declaring a state of emergency in November.
But if Mr. Saakashvili manages to win at least 50 percent of votes in this election, or a runoff in two weeks – and overcomes the vocal opposition's protests of fraudulent polls – the result could be greater stability. Though his mandate would be weaker than when he won 96 percent in the Rose Revolution four years ago, Saakashvili could still get a second term, in which he has pledged to devote to fighting the tiny nation's desperate poverty, steering it into NATO, and bringing two breakaway regions to heel.
Monday is Orthodox Christmas, and in deeply observant Georgia, no major political activity is likely until after the festival. But at a small, snowy rally in Tbilisi Sunday, Saakashvili's main contender, Levan Gachechiladze, of the united opposition accused Georgian authorities of falsifying the exit polls and rigging the vote and vowed to fight the results in court. "We will tell Mikhael Saakashvili that it's impossible to defeat the Georgian people," Mr. Gachechiladze said. "We will defend our vote by legal means."
The Association of Young Lawyers, an independent Georgian watchdog, said it has filed about 95 complaints with regional electoral commissions in the Georgian cities of Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Batumi. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent more than 400 election observers, noted that the campaign had been marred by "lack of trust and pervasive allegations of violations." But it certified the voting in Georgia's first fairly contested elections as "consistent with international standards."
But one opposition leader, Tina Khidasheli of the moderate Republican Party, says the OSCE has been wrong about Georgian elections in the past. "Look what happened in 2003, when the OSCE said the elections were free and fair," she says. "We had the Rose Revolution because we knew their results were false." She chalks up unexplained delays in preparing the final vote tally Sunday as a likely indication that officials are rigging the vote again.
In 2004, Saakashvili swept into office amid euphoria after weeks of street protests over an allegedly rigged parliamentary election that compelled former president Eduard Shevardnadze to resign. Experts give Saakashvili's first term a mixed report card, including good marks for fighting corruption, improving ties with the West, and persuading one of Georgia's three breakaway regions, Adjaria, to return to government control. Georgia's economy has grown by an average 10 percent annually despite a Russian embargo on the country's main exports.
But Saakashvili made little headway against Georgia's endemic poverty. His pro-Western stance has inflamed relations with neighboring Russia and, last November, Saakashvili imperiled his reputation as a democrat by sweeping nonviolent demonstrators from the streets, arresting opposition leaders, and closing critical media outlets during a state of emergency.
Saakashvili quickly backed off and called the snap polls. Some experts say he learned his lesson. "Saakashvili was energetic and seemed to realize and confront the mistakes he had made, while the opposition campaign was ... based on criticizing," says Alexander Rondeli, president of the independent Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi. "[The opposition] are making a mistake in creating an atmosphere of mistrust. People are tired of conflict."
Others say Saakashvili's diminished vote puts him on notice. "Saakashvili will have to realize that ... he cannot claim to have outright support," as in the past, says Gia Nodia, head of the independent Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy, and Development in Tbilisi.
Saakashvili's campaign manager, David Bakradze, says the early elections were necessary to stabilize Georgia's government before an expected storm in relations with Russia. Moscow's backing for two breakaway Georgian territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, could turn into a crisis if the Western-backed Balkan territory of Kosovo declares unilateral independence – as is expected within several months, if not weeks. If the US and EU recognize Kosovo, Russia has hinted it may do the same for its Georgian protectorates.
But during the campaign, Saakashvili vowed to reunify Georgia "no matter what the cost" in 2008. This could be the key challenge of his new term, says Mr. Bakradze. "Kosovo's independence could directly cause a crisis in Georgia if the government were in transition at this time," he says. "However, with a new president and a new mandate, the risks have decreased dramatically."