Saakashvili's party loses as Georgian democracy takes step forward

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.

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

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.

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.

Yet the question remains, what will actually happen to his coalition once it assumes Parliament? It is made up of six parties representing a wide array of political viewpoints and includes liberals, nationalists, and xenophobes.

Nana Sumbadze, codirector of the Institute for Policy Studies, does not know how much control Ivanishvili will have on this loose coalition, but surmises “it will be more interesting and pluralistic.” 

As for the UNM, she foresees its disintegration, as that has been the pattern of Georgia’s power transfers.

“They weren’t united by ideology, but by power. And when Saakashvili’s presidential term is up next year, they will have no leader. We’ll see disintegration,” she says. “But it would be better if they stay as a party,” she adds.

Success through opposition

Some observers expect Saakashvili to be able to turn this loss into a victory, as he is not only seen as the man who turned a failed state into a modernizing nation, but he has shown a commitment to democratic principles by not interfering in the voting process. Levan Ramishvili, chair of the Tbilisi think tank Liberty Institute, concedes that some opportunistic UNM members will jump sides, but those who stay for idealistic purposes will strengthen the party. 

“The [United] National Movement might become a quite capable opposition party as long as they don’t become bitter, and remain critical and cooperate with the Georgian Dream when they can,” Mr. Ramishvili says.

He points to Ukraine, where, despite its lack of economic and democratic process, nothing catastrophic occurred after the change of its revolutionary government. “This is something similar.”

In 2009, when mass opposition protests in Tbilisi demanded Saakashvili's resignation, the president quipped that if he was an opposition leader he could topple his own government. But by conceding defeat today and announcing his move into opposition, he has in effect acknowledged that Georgia has outgrown the pattern of toppling one-party governments and proved his critics, who believed he could not give up power, wrong. 

Mark Mullen, chair of Transparency International Georgia, sees a new era of Georgian politics emerging, where one party no longer rules the country and in effect becomes the state. 

“Parties must now cooperate and these guys, Misha and Ivanishvili have to get along for a year, because Misha’s still president," he says, using a common Georgian nickname for Saakashvili. "That’s new. They’re going to have to share power. It’s necessary in a democracy.”

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