By Ronald J. McNamara
International Policy Director
Georgians rang in 2008 amid a rough and tumble political campaign filled with intrigue and capped off by extraordinary presidential elections on January 5. Large street demonstrations had broken out in the capital, Tbilisi, in early November, with protesters demanding early parliamentary elections, a restructuring of the political system and the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after leading Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. After several days of peaceful rallies, the authorities moved against the protesters, violently dispersing the crowds and moving against selected media outlets.
Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency on November 7, but in the face of mounting international criticism, called the following day for early presidential elections, cutting short his tenure by nearly a year and a half. In accordance with Georgian law, he relinquished the presidency later that month in order to run for a second five-year term. Parliament endorsed the holding of pre-term presidential elections and Speaker Nino Burjanadze became Acting President.
Besides the presidential contest, two non-binding questions were also put to voters: moving up parliamentary elections originally scheduled for late 2008 (a demand of opposition demonstrators in November) and the desirability of eventual NATO membership for Georgia.
Of the 13 candidates who submitted signature lists to the Central Election Commission, seven candidates were ultimately registered and appeared on the ballot: Levan Gachechiladze (United Public Movement); David Gamkrelidze (New Rights Party); Giorgi Maisashvili (Party of the Future); Shalva Natelashvili (Georgian Labor Party); independent candidate Arkadi (Badri) Patarkatsishvili; incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili (United National Movement); and Irina Sarishvili (Hope Party).
Helsinki Commission Chairman, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings from Florida was jointly appointed by Foreign Ministers Miguel Ángel Moratinos (Spain) and Ilkka Kanerva (Finland) to head the OSCE International Election Observation Mission (IEOM), comprising the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Hastings, OSCE PA President Emeritus, had previously led similar missions to Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine. Congressman Lloyd Doggett from Texas served as an international observer under the OSCE PA.
Congressional and Commission staff were also deployed as part of the mission, which included 495 short-term observers. The CEC accredited over 100 domestic and foreign media outlets. Several dozen domestic non-party NGOs, in addition to party observers, were also registered to observe the elections. So were 50 international NGOs, including the U.S.-based International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.
An extensive series of briefings for international observers included presentations by officials administering the elections, political analysts, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and the media, as well as the candidates. Opposition candidates generally complained about an uneven playing field. They claimed abuse of state resources by the incumbent and bias on the part of the CEC, as well as decrying the high costs for placement of televised political commercials, inaccuracies in the consolidated voter list, and acts of intimidation. Several candidates made clear that, under such circumstances, they would not accept the results of the elections. Most voiced a lack of confidence in the system, pointing to the lack of an independent judiciary. One candidate labeled Saakashvili the “Robert Mugabe” of Georgia, after the dictatorial leader of Zimbabwe, for his authoritarianism. Another equated the situation in Georgia with the volatility of Pakistan. Saakashvili, for his part, used the appearance to outline the benefits of his reform agenda, report on his extensive campaigning throughout the country and justify the use of force surrounding the November events. He also bemoaned “the Shakespearean drama” of the campaign, in referring to a reported coup plot allegedly masterminded by candidate Arkadi (Badri) Patarkatsishvili, reportedly Georgia’s wealthiest tycoon, and his close associates. Saakashvili confidently suggested that he could win in the first round, concluding, “it will be unfortunate for the country if I don’t win.”
Political upheaval is nothing new in this mountainous Caucasus nation with a population of 4.6 million and an area slightly smaller than South Carolina. Since gaining independence in 1991, Saakashvili’s two predecessors, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze were each forced from office, the former in a bloody coup and the latter following flawed elections that spawned the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili garnered a stunning 96.3% of the vote in the January 2004 presidential elections, with a voter turn out nearing 90%.
Walking down Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue and Freedom Square, brilliantly lighted for the Christmas season, one was struck by the images of Saakashvili plastered on city buses and huge posters, as well as passersby sporting scarves and matching knitted hats with his party’s signature number “5.” At the same time, there was a certain unease lingering in the air of the capital, perhaps left over from the violent November crackdown, or anxiety over threats of a coup or prospects for renewed mass demonstrations following the elections. While public opinion was fairly evenly split on the imposition of the state of emergency, most people were strongly opposed to the use of riot police and tear gas, as well as the forced closure of the popular Imedi TV channel. Adding to the uncertainty, Patarkatsishvili had reportedly decided to withdraw from the elections within days of the elections only to reverse himself two days before the actual balloting. There were also rumors of possible violence at polling stations on election day.
On election day Chairman Hastings and his colleagues observed no significant infractions of the electoral code in the nearly three dozen polling stations they visited. Election precincts visited by their teams were spread out across Tbilisi, as well as in the more rural Gori and Mtskheta Election Districts. We also had an opportunity to observe mobile voting, during which election officials bring a clear plastic voting box and ballot to the home of a voter unable to physically make it to the polling station. Precinct election commissions, composed of representatives from various parties, seemed to work cooperatively, with large numbers of domestic non-partisan and party observers present from opening through the sometimes arduous counting process. Voter list errors were commonplace; some names were missing while those of the deceased sometimes appeared. Procedures allowed for the casting of provisional ballots by those whose names were not listed. In at least two of the polling stations visited, officials and observers alike were on edge amid rumors of possible disruption by outside gangs, though none materialized. The sometimes painstaking vote count often stretched into the wee hours of the morning.
Speaking on behalf of the International Election Observation Mission before a crowded press conference the day after the election, Chairman Hastings praised the competitive nature of the presidential contest, a first in Georgian history. He remarked, “I perceive this election as a viable expression of the free choice of the Georgian people,” while acknowledging, “the future holds immense challenges.” The IEOM concluded that the January 5th election “was in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections.” The January 6th statement [Click here to view the statement] of preliminary findings and conclusions outlines a series of shortcomings, urging prompt corrective steps by the authorities. Chairman Hastings traveled from Tbilisi to Helsinki to brief Finnish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office Ilkka Kanerva on the first elections of Finland’s 2008 chairmanship. [Click here to view the press release] The IEOM is expected to issue a final report on the Georgian elections in early February.
A short distance from the hotel press conference, a crowd of opposition supporters gathered to protest the preliminary results being announced by the CEC suggesting a first-round victory for Saakashvili, narrowly avoiding a run-off. Peaceful protests took place in the days following as several candidates and their supporters remained true to their pledges not to accept the results of the January 5th vote. In a televised address to the nation, Saakashvili remarked, “No one can ignore the opinion of people who did not vote for us,” concluding, “We have to find a consensus.” Still, finding such a consensus will likely prove a daunting task in a country where confrontation has more often than not trumped compromise, sometimes ending in violence.
So far, there has been no recurrence of the confrontations of November but opposition parties have largely refused to recognize Saakashvili’s victory. Saakashvili was sworn into office for a second term on January 20, 2008. Some members of the opposition have been engaged in discussions with former Acting President Burjanadze about, for example, means of ensuring pluralism of views in Georgia’s media. But all sides are now focused on the critical parliamentary elections this spring; should opposition parties do well in the balloting, relations between the executive and legislative branches could change substantially in Georgia.
Of the nearly 2 million ballots cast (56.9% of the electorate), the CEC announced Saakashvili the winner with 53.47% of the vote and his closest competitor Gachechiladze, at 25.69%. None of the remaining candidates exceeded single digits, according to the official tally. The plebiscites on spring parliamentary elections and NATO membership were overwhelmingly approved, with 69.8% and 72.5% respectively.