Georgia on edge as both sides claim victory


The poisonous mood that prevailed during the election campaign continued on polling day, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLINin Tbilisi

GEORGIA’S RULING and opposition parties both claimed victory last night after a fiercely fought parliamentary election that pitched the country’s president against its richest man.

Two exit polls gave the Georgian Dream movement led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili a lead of five to 10 per cent over president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), but the ruling party said it would triumph once full and final results were announced.

The exit polls related only to voting on party lists, which are used to elect 77 members of Georgia’s parliament. The other 73 seats in the chamber are filled by candidates who are directly elected from individual constituencies, and the UNM predicted it would take most of these.

“We have won! The Georgian people have won!” declared Mr Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, who only entered politics last year after making his fortune in Russia.

“I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new parliament,” the once publicity-shy Mr Ivanishvili (56) told supporters. “I have achieved what I have long been striving for.” As Georgian Dream voters thronged around Tbilisi’s old town, and massed in the city’s central Freedom Square as cars drove by honking horns and trailing blue-and-gold party flags, Mr Saakashvili’s allies showed no sign of conceding defeat.

Spokeswoman Chiora Taktakishvili predicted the ruling party would take 53 of the 73 directly elected seats, meaning “the United National Movement will have a majority in the new parliament. We need to wait for results, but it seems clear that the Georgian Dream coalition has won the majority in the proportional vote, but in single-mandate constituencies the majority of votes has been secured by Georgia’s United National Movement,” said Mr Saakashvili.

He must step down next year after serving two terms in office. After that, parliament will appoint a new prime minister with many of the powers that now reside with the president. Mr Ivanishvili says he wants to be premier for a maximum of two years before leaving politics.

The potential for street protests and unrest is considerable in Georgia. International monitors described as “confrontational and rough” a campaign that saw both main political forces embroiled in lurid scandals and engaging in angry exchanges of allegations.

The UNM’s popularity appears to have been badly damaged by footage first aired on opposition television stations that revealed how prison guards were brutalising inmates.

Pro-government channels hit back with claims that opposition figures were closely linked with mafia groups, some of which were allegedly planning a post-election coup in Georgia.

Mr Ivanishvili said the prison scandal exposed the rotten heart of the pro-western Georgia built by Mr Saakashvili and the UNM since they took power through the 2003 Rose Revolution.

The president and ruling party defended their record – pointing to strong economic growth, a sharp reduction in petty crime and corruption, and progress on the long road towards EU and Nato membership – and accused Mr Ivanishvili of planning to restore Russian domination over Georgia.

The poisonous mood continued through election day, with each side accusing the other’s supporters of intimidation, interference and isolated violent incidents at polling stations around the country of 4.5 million people.

International monitors led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – chaired this year by Ireland – will report their findings today.

Both sides have said they will accept the election results if they are approved by western observers. Mr Ivanishvili has warned, however, that he will bring one million people on to the streets if Mr Saakashvili’s allies rig the ballot.

As attention turned to the potentially contentious counting of votes last night, jubilant supporters of Mr Ivanishvili said Mr Saakashvili and the UNM must accept defeat and leave power peacefully. “We came to celebrate and defend our victory,” said Temuri Beloyev, standing with friends on Freedom Square as cars flying Georgian Dream flags and packed with cheering passengers blocked the traffic.

“The people have had enough of poverty and fear. Saakashvili has put half the country in jail.”

Nearby, a car skidded to a halt and friends Nina and Laka leapt out. “I voted for Saakashvili. He has done lots of good for the country and deserves more time,” said Nina.

“I support Ivanishvili,” countered Laka. “Nina lives in Moscow and doesn’t understand what it’s like here. Saakashvili and his people have had nine years in power – it’s time for someone else to have a chance.”