A Victory For Voters As Georgians 'Take Matters Into Their Own Hands'
Georgia-watchers are breathing a tentative sigh of relief as early presidential elections earned a preliminary seal of approval from Western observers, who pronounced the snap ballot a "valid" reflection of public will. David Kakabadze, the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, is in Tbilisi for the vote and says the victory belongs not to incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili, but to Georgian voters.
If the January 5 vote was seen by many as a test of Georgia's democratic credentials, Kakabadze says there are a number of reasons to be optimistic -- starting with relatively strong turnout of near 60 percent.
"These elections were the best so far in the period of independence that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union," he says. "The fact that the turnout was quite high says a lot, because people in Georgia decided to take matters into their own hands, to make decisions about their own fate. It's not something that has a long tradition in this country."
Praise And Protests
That percentage, he notes, is even more impressive given that nearly one-third of Georgia's 3.4 million voters live outside the country and may have been unable to cast their ballots -- particularly the hundreds of thousands living in Russia, which hosted only two polling stations on its vast territory.
Inside the country, continued protests can be expected from the opposition, which says the election was marred by fraud and that any results handing Saakashvili an outright first-round win -- meaning anything higher than 50 percent -- should be viewed with extreme skepticism.
Western election monitors tempered their overall approval of the conduct of the vote with sternly worded concerns about uneven access to "administrative resources" such as television airtime and transport.
Alcee Hastings, a U.S. congressman and senior election observer with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), noted that in the weeks leading up to the vote "the distinction between state activities and the former president's campaign was sometimes blurred." The head of the European Parliament's monitoring group noted several irregularities on voting day, and warned corrections must be made ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.
Kakabadze says such concerns are justified. Saakashvili, a tireless campaigner in the weeks ahead of the ballot, seemingly left no stone unturned in attempting to win votes -- even distributing free firewood and flour to villagers who turned out for preelection events.
"The candidate of the ruling party was using administrative resources to gain support," Kakabadze says. "I can't call this election completely fair, and I can't say they were conducted according to all international standards, definitely not."
Essentially Free And Fair
As for the vote itself, however, Kakabadze says there has been little cause for suspicion. "Everything I've heard from international observers and our own correspondents, in both the regions and the big cities -- and from what I witnessed myself at the polling stations -- was that the atmosphere was very peaceful. I haven't seen anything to indicate that there's been massive fraud."
People seeking a chastened version of Saakashvili, the brash leader who bounded to power following the bloodless protests of the 2003 Rose Revolution, may still find cause for disappointment. Saakashvili, whose heavy-handed response to opposition protests in November 2007 ultimately forced him to early elections, in recent days appeared buoyantly confident of his win and staunchly unapologetic about his November decision to authorize a police crackdown on protesters and unfriendly media outlets.
His ebullient announcement, late in the evening on January 5, that he fully expected to win the vote, was unnecessary and gave opponents even more ammunition in claiming the results had long since been fixed, Kakabadze says, adding, "He simply didn't need to do it."
Still, Kakabadze is hopeful that in the case of a second Saakashvili term, it will be a humbler one. It is nearly certain that Saakashvili's focus would shift from foreign policy toward things closer to home. "From what he's saying, and the way he's acting, he's going to turn his attention toward social issues. His election slogan was 'Georgia without poverty.' I think he's going to do everything possible to attract foreign investment and create jobs."
And even as the opposition is warning of a fresh round of public demonstrations to protest the ballot results, Kakabadze says Georgia is unlikely to see the kind of armed government response that marked the November rallies. In the case of Saakashvili's nationwide win, he suffered a crucial defeat in losing in the capital city, where many voters remain angry over the autumn events. A future term, says Kakabadze, will surely see Saakashvili's power in check.
"I'm sure the Georgian population will not allow any leader to establish something like a dictatorship. They will definitely come out to the streets again as soon as they see signs of this," he says. "I think that Saakashvili's clever enough -- and experienced enough, since the November events -- not to do this again."