Saakashvili concedes defeat in Georgia polls
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded a shock defeat Tuesday to a billionaire tycoon in parliamentary polls, ending nine years of dominance that antagonised Russia and brought Tbilisi closer to the West.
Although Saakashvili remains president, the defeat of his United National Movement by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in Monday’s elections means he will lose control of parliament and the government.
His apparently graceful acceptance of the unexpected defeat marks one of the first times not only Georgia but any ex-Soviet state, excluding the Baltic countries, has seen a peaceful transfer of power since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“It is clear that the (opposition) Georgian Dream has won a majority,” Saakashvili said in a dramatic televised speech after elections hailed as an “important step” for democracy by international observers.
“We, as an opposition force, will fight for the future of our country,” he said.
Ivanishvili appears the favourite to replace Saakashvili’s close ally Vano Merabishvili as prime minister although under current rules he will still have to be nominated by the president and approved by parliament.
At his first post-election news conference, a triumphant Ivanishvili called on Saakashvili to quit: “The only right decision now for Saakashvili would be to resign,” he said.
Georgian Dream was leading Saakashvili’s United National Movement by 54.02 to 41.23 percent after 72.84 percent of electoral precincts declared results in the proportional ballot that will decide just over half of the parliamentary seats.
In the opposition stronghold Tbilisi, Georgian Dream candidates were leading in nine of the capital’s 10 first-past-the-post constituencies. Such votes in 73 constituencies nationwide will make up the remainder of the parliament.
Saakashvili’s campaign was undermined by a prison torture scandal that prompted nationwide protests and also growing fatigue with the larger-than-life lawyer known even to his enemies as simply “Misha”.
—’Georgian citizens set example’—
Coming to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili set Georgia on a staunchly pro-Western path with the aims of NATO membership and escaping the influence of Russia, with which Georgia fought a brief war in 2008.
The United States congratulated Georgia on holding successful elections, saying the polls had set an important precedent for a democratic transfer of power.
“Georgian citizens have set a regional and global example by conducting a competitive campaign, freely exercising their democratic rights, and affirming their commitment to undertake a peaceful transfer of power,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
In the first reaction from Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev welcomed the initial vote results, pointing to the opposition’s victory as a sign of people wanting more “constructive” ties with Moscow.
Russia refuses to deal with Saakashvili, who President Vladimir Putin reportedly once vowed to “hang by the balls”.
Ivanishvili said he wanted to improve links with Russia at the same time as bidding to join NATO — an ambition that angered Moscow while Saakashvili’s government was in power.
“We must normalise relations with Russia. Our strategy to become a NATO member will not be reversed,” he said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the European Union looked forward to further continued close cooperation with Tbilisi.
OSCE election observers described the polls as an “important step in consolidating the conduct of democratic elections.”
“Despite a very polarising campaign that included harsh rhetoric and shortcomings, the Georgian people have freely expressed their will at the ballot box,” said Tonino Picula, the head of the OSCE international observer mission.
Ivanishvili had declared victory immediately after several exit polls suggested late Monday that his coalition was ahead and his supporters celebrated long into the night in central Tbilisi.
The elections were crucial for Georgia’s future because its parliament and prime minister will become stronger and the presidency’s powers will dwindle under constitutional changes that come into force after Saakashvili’s two-term rule ends.
Voter turnout was 61 percent, the Central Election Commission said.
Saakashvili’s party, which controlled 119 of the 150 seats in the outgoing parliament, had dominated Georgia since the Rose Revolution that ousted the country’s former leader, ex-Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze.