Emotions are running high as Georgians vote in a watershed parliamentary election.
- By James KirchickJames Kirchick is author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, published by Yale University Press.
TBILISI, Georgia — To appreciate the level of political polarization in Georgia — which held nationwide parliamentary elections Monday — take the case of a 10-month-old girl found drowned Sunday evening in a wine jug.
Late Sunday night, reports surfaced that Barbare Rapaliani, an infant from the village of Kolagi, had gone missing. "We were having supper on a second-floor balcony. The child was sleeping on the first floor in her bed," a family member later told a local news outlet. "Five minutes later they went down to see the child, who disappeared, taken from her bed." Barbare was later found in a buried wine jar, half-full of water. Rushed to the hospital, she later died.
Immediately, some family members alleged that the tragedy was not only foul play but politically motivated. Barbare’s aunt is a local coordinator for Georgian Dream, a coalition mounting the first serious challenge to the United National Movement (UNM), the dominant ruling party of President Mikhail Saakashvili, which came to power in Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. Manana Berikashvili, the local parliamentary candidate for Georgian Dream (GD), told an opposition television channel that the girl’s aunt "was repeatedly threatened, there were attempts to bribe and threaten her, that’s why people have a suspicion that those threats are related to the death of the child." Police began investigating the case and, as of this writing, two relatives were arrested in connection with the case.
The allegation that government supporters would stoop to drowning a 10-month-old baby is the most serious to have arisen in this heated, but largely violence-free, campaign. But they are of a piece with Georgian Dream’s narrative. The opposition has portrayed Saakashvili’s government — long a darling of the West for its progressive reforms, determination to resist a resurgent Russian hegemon, and generally underdog position in a region sorely lacking liberal democracy — as nothing less than an authoritarian dictatorship. That characterization received a massive boost two weeks ago, when a video showing the torture and rape of prisoners was released on national television, throwing what many here assumed to be a surefire UNM victory into serious question. One email message I saw from an opposition activist promised a "Nuremberg Trial" for the present government if Georgian Dream were to prove victorious.
What sort of recriminations, if any, may befall Georgia’s leaders is just one of the many questions that make this country’s election important. Indeed, that the outcome of the election itself has been so suspenseful these past few weeks is due almost entirely to the surprise entry of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s billionaire founder, into politics last October. For months, Georgian Dream has declared that the ballot would be rigged, leading many to speculate that the aftermath would be protracted and possibly violent. "We have enough evidence right now to say that the elections are already fraudulent and already being stolen," Ivanishvili told Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin in a recent interview. "We don’t have to wait for the first of October because the amount of material is already so large that we can prove and say that this is already election-rigging and this is already a stolen election."
Shortly after noon Monday, Georgian Dream called on its supporters to mass in streets for a "Rally to Defend the Vote" at 7 PM, despite the fact that polls did not close until 8 PM and the official results of the election would not be announced until early Tuesday morning. An exit poll announced on an opposition television channel Monday afternoon (in violation of Georgian law, which prohibits exit polls from being publicized until after polls closed) declared Georgian Dream would achieve an impossibly high 95 percent of the popular vote.
Ivanishvili has delivered mixed signals about his potential reaction to an election defeat, delivering a message of defiance to his Georgian electorate and a mollifying one to international interlocutors. "It is unimaginable that the West will support those who have created this sadist system," he said last Saturday at a massive outdoor rally in Freedom Square, which his party absurdly claimed was attended by 600,000 people — over 10 percent of the country’s population. In September, Ivanishvili lashed out at the U.S.-government-funded National Democratic Institute for a poll it released showing the UNM with a commanding, 25-point lead; the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi defended the group, stating that its polls are "conducted professionally and based on legitimate methodology."
Meanwhile, according to Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, Ivanishvili told a group of Western journalists the next day that, "We have no problem taking the role of opposition." Congressman David Dreier, who led an election monitoring team from the International Republican Institute, met with Ivanishvili on Sunday as well, and told me that the Georgian Dream leader was "very conciliatory and seemed to be desirous of encouraging his supporters to respect the results." In an interview last week, Giga Bokeria, a close confidant of Saakashvili who serves as his National Security Advisor and also chairs the country’s Interagency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections, likened Ivanishvili’s messaging to that of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who spoke militantly in Arabic and moderately in English.
Ivanishvili’s mercurial statements about the election aftermath accentuate the mystery that surrounds the man who remains an enigma even to many of his supporters. Ranked 153 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest men, he is worth an estimated $5.5 billion, half of Georgia’s GDP. Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia in the heady years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and his reluctance to say nary a negative word about Vladimir Putin — a sure vote-getter in Georgia, where a fifth of the country’s territory is occupied by Russia as a result of a 2008 war over two breakaway territories — have left him open to the accusation that he is a Kremlin stalking horse.
Unlike many a gaudy Russian oligarch, he lived an existence more akin to Bruce Wayne and Howard Hughes, anonymously doling out vast amounts of cash to Georgian charities, building projects, and artist bursaries, all the while ensconced within a glass-enclosed mansion high up in the hills outside Tbilisi. Hardly anyone in the world, never mind here in Georgia, had ever heard of Ivanishvili until he decided to announce his creation of the Georgian Dream coalition — an alliance of six parties, some radically different from one another.
Despite the heated campaign rhetoric, voting day was remarkably calm. The government declared Monday a national holiday, and residents of Tbilisi — a perennial opposition stronghold, regardless of whoever is in power — took advantage of the beautiful weather to stroll the city’s boulevards, dine at cafes, and vote. The combination of over 62,000 domestic election observers, 1,600 international observers, and 3,300 accredited journalists — all for an electorate of roughly 3.5 million people — may have made Monday’s vote the most observed election in history. Yet while there were few complaints registered at the polls, a sense of grievance was expressed by many opposition supporters, who felt that there was no way the government could win the election except via fraud.
"I’ve watched TV in the last days and I have a feeling it won’t be fair," Gulnazi, a Tbilisi pensioner who declined to give me her last name, said. Tata, a 25-year-old marketing specialist who also declined to give her surname, repeated a charge I heard frequently in my travels across the country over the past few days, which is that government employees have been intimidated into attending UNM events. "People working for government ministries are told if they won’t vote for #5 [the ruling party’s number on the ballot] they could lose their jobs. They take people from work to rallies."
Many opposition supporters, conditioned by rhetoric that Saakashvili is a dictator hell-bent on staying in power no matter the cost, are convinced that he will use violence to put down opposition protests. Salome Chukhua, a 22-year-old Tbilisi resident and opposition supporter, told me that the president has "a very clever plan to develop the police and armed forces to use them for himself. I’m not sure if all police officers, Internal Ministry and Ministry of Defense [officials], support the government. Yet there is still fear that they will use arms against the people." At his rally in Tbilisi last weekend, Ivanishvili spoke behind bulletproof glass window panels, a precaution that Saakashvili does not take.
The government has written off such complaints as cynical fear mongering by a pro-Russian candidate meant to gain Western sympathy. "Ivanishvili’s much more afraid of Putin than he is of us," Raphael Glucksmann, a senior advisor to Saakashvili since 2008 (and the son of French philosopher André Glucksmann) told me over the weekend. "Unless he kills a child in front of CNN, he’s not going to prison," he assured me.
Ivanishvili’s combative rhetoric, oft-repeated predictions that a huge victory will be thwarted by massive fraud, and his portrayal of the election as a live-or-die moment for Georgian democracy, have raised his supporters’ expectations to such an extent that they will not accept anything less than outright victory. But Saakashvili’s perhaps quixotic aspiration for membership in the European Union and NATO provide an incentive for the government to behave well and ensure a successful election and aftermath. Internationally broadcast images of a police crackdown are the last thing that Saakashvili — who has already tested the patience of his Western allies with the 2008 war he helped to spark — needs. The government’s plan in dealing with post-election protests, Glucksmann told me, is to "hide the police" so as to prevent the possibility of clashes. Their job on election night and in the days thereafter will be to protect public buildings from potential attempts to occupy them, he says, and all police officers will be operating under "strict rules of engagement."
Claims of voter intimidation aside, I found Georgians to be remarkably well informed and willing to express their views. Most voters I interviewed over the past few days — and I spoke to dozens both in Tbilisi and in villages — had strong opinions, and did not seem afraid to voice them.
Complicating the situation is Georgia’s mixed electoral system in which 73 seats out of the 150-member parliament are elected from single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 seats are selected proportionally from the nationwide vote. Georgians therefore get two votes: one for a local candidate, the second for a party. This system is widely considered to favor the ruling party, as it has a much better chance of winning majoritarian seats due to opposition parties splitting the anti-government vote. Indeed, while exit polls showed the opposition gaining some 51 percent of the national popular vote, the UNM announced it won an overwhelming number of single-mandate seats, thus ensuring it a majority in parliament.
One of the keys to Ivanishvili’s success was his ability to unite a group of disparate and small opposition parties, usually prone to infighting, to join together under his banner. Yet the uneasy diversity of the Georgian Dream coalition, and the country’s electoral system, may be its undoing. Ivanishvili wanted to avoid giving any individual party in his coalition too much power, and so he dispersed members of the various parties throughout the party’s proportional list so as to dilute the number of seats that any one party could obtain. As the formation of a government will likely require a degree of cross-party wrangling, the UNM now has the opportunity to pick off individual members of the GD coalition or work with yet another opposition party to form a governing majority. "Even if GD wins a majority, the UNM could form a government because they’re more cohesive," a long-time Western observer of Georgian politics told me.
Underneath the stories of pro-government voter suppression and opposition rhetoric that seemed to reject the institutions of government itself, however, lies a more important story, which is that Georgians have enthusiastically shown their support for democratic processes: The same NDI poll that so angered Ivanishvili, for instance, found that 40 percent opposed the various fines the government levied on the opposition for campaign finance violations. An earlier NDI poll found that over 70 percent of citizens opposed the government’s early attempt to strip Ivanishvili of his citizenship (Ivanishvili relinquished his Russian citizenship, but maintains French citizenship). Less than one-third of UNM voters backed either of these moves. Such findings demonstrate a hunger for competitive politics in Georgia, even if many voters may have no love for Ivanishvili, his coalition partners, or his style of politics.
Taking part in an election that, by all early indications, was free and fair, the Georgian people have done their job. Now responsibility lies in the hands of their respective political leaders. Billionaires and headstrong presidents are used to getting what they want. If there’s one thing that Ivanishvili and Saakashvili have in common, it’s reluctance to compromise. But Georgia’s young democracy now hinges on whether these two men are willing to do just that.