Georgia elections a triumph for Saakashvili

The first Georgia elections since the country's defeat in its brief war with Russia in 2008 were a triumph for President Mikhael Saakashvili. His party rolled to victory in major cities, and observers said the poll was reasonably fair.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili (l.) and his wife Sandra Roelofs leave a voting booth during the mayoral election at a polling station in Tbilisi, Monday. Saakashvili is expected to win his first electoral test since a 2008 war with Russia on Sunday, aided by a fragmented opposition that has struggled to capitalize on public anger over his rule.

The ruling party of Georgian President Mikhael Saakashvili triumphed in Georgian elections over the weekend that were the first electoral test for Mr. Saakashvili since Georgia's disastrous 2008 war with Russia.

International monitors and local critics said the outcome was basically acceptable, despite numerous complaints of official support for the ruling party and voting irregularities. Turnout was low, under 50 percent in the capital, Tbilisi, and in several other major towns.

In the key contest for mayor of Tbilisi, the pro-Saakashvili incumbent Gigi Ugulava took more than 55 percent of the votes. Former United Nations ambassador Irakli Alasania, the most prominent member of a field of eight opposition candidates, came in a distant second with just 19 percent.

In municipal races around this tiny nation of 4.5 million, Saakashvili's United National Movement appeared to have won about 60 percent of the votes cast. "The final result is that democracy has won in Georgia," Saakashvili told supporters after the results of Sunday's voting became clear.

But critics say the outcome owes more to the fragmented and fractious character of the opposition, who were unable to field a united candidate even in the critical Tbilisi race, than to Saakashvili's popularity, which has been badly dented by a string of scandals.

"This is pretty much a case of people choosing the devil they know, because they fear the other ones might be even worse," says George Khutsishvili, director of the independent International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi. "Saakashvili's greatest strength is the disorganized and ineffective opposition that he faces."

Reasonably fair

Almost 5,000 international observers were on hand to witness the voting, and most declared it to be a step forward for Georgia, where Saakashvili has occasionally flirted with authoritarian means of securing his rule.

"Yesterday's municipal elections in Georgia marked evident progress toward meeting international standards, but significant shortcomings remain to be addressed," said a Monday report by observers from the biggest contingent, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"Nevertheless, the low level of public confidence in the election process persisted," it added. "Further efforts in resolutely tackling recurring misconduct are required in order to consolidate the progress achieved and enhance public trust before the next national elections."

Some analysts said opposition leaders were damaged by pervasive suggestions that they might be in the pay of the Kremlin, which has made no secret of its distaste for Saakashvili.

After prominent opposition politician Nino Burzhanadze visited Moscow in March to explore terms for better relations, a government-connected Georgian TV station ran a fake documentary that appeared to tar Ms. Burzhanadze as being in the service of Moscow.

"The opposition was intimidated to some extent, and thrown onto the defensive by efforts to label them as 'Russian agents,' " says Mr. Khutsishvili. "They had to worry about disclosing every single source of funding, and were constantly forced to explain themselves."

Mr. Alasania, perhaps the opposition's most promising leader, conceded his defeat in Tbilisi and told his supporters to begin preparing for the next cycle of parliamentary and presidential polls, due in about two years.

"We have been defined by voters as one of the key political force," Alasania said. "With this support we continue our struggle to contribute democratic development of our country, to make electoral system more transparent.... With the parliamentary elections [in 2012], we face the major test ahead of us."

In contrast to last year, when oppositionists held months of rolling street demonstrations in a vain attempt to unseat Saakashvili, no one appears likely to protest now.

"The elections were democratic, and not a single party here – even the most radical – is going to accuse the authorities of any major manipulations," says Irine Sarishvili-Chanturia, a former deputy prime minister who is now a moderate opposition figure. "But the democratic character of the elections themselves doesn't mean we have no problems with our democracy. The opposition is divided, and the authorities made many false promises," she says.

"We need to look forward, and renew our commitment to make things better."

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