The parliamentary election in Georgia this week has been very surprising, for several reasons. I believe this could be the first time that the opposition “officially” beats the ruling party (by actual vote count and not simply by exit poll results). That would be a tremendous step forward for a country where, at least in the past, those in power could fix things to assure themselves a victory, and the people could do little about it. The final results aren’t in yet, but this could be the first time for the country to have a transition of power that happens through elections, and not by means of a coup, civil war, or mass protest. The people need and deserve that kind of precedent.
I was also surprised that President Mikheil Saakashvili acknowledged that his ruling party would now become the opposition–before all the votes were even counted.
Going from the time I’ve spent living there and all of the political conversations I’ve had with Georgians, such “gentlemanly” behavior is not typical for their country’s politics. If it eventually becomes the norm, that will be outstanding, because it will make losing more acceptable—and that could mean less election fraud. Saakashvili and the leader of the opposition “Georgian Dream” coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, have also pledged to work together, despite their obvious mutual dislike. Ivanishvili showed what I thought was a lack of political grace when he turned around and said Saakashvili should resign. Why add to the tension, right now?
Ever since he came onto the political scene, just about a year ago, Ivanishvili has been a magnet for nasty criticism. (If you’re curious, you can read what I wrote about how one Georgian newspaper compared him to an Italian porn star.) There is no reason to consider him a saint—I’m not sure how a saint could have made his enormous fortune in Russia during the 1990s, when the only rule was apparently “survival of the entrepreneurially fittest.” Now, we will have to wait and see what kind of alternative to Saakashvili he and his coalition can offer voters. In the meantime, it seems odd to be jumping to conclusions about how Ivanishvili must be a Russian “agent” because he hasn’t publicly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, as James Kirchik suggested in his Wall Street Journal article.
Maybe Ivanishvili has been trying to distinguish himself from the distinctly undiplomatic Saakashvili, who once mocked Vlad’s height by calling him “Lilliputin.” There was no love lost. And if, as Kirchik says, accusing the Saakashvili government of starting the 2008 war with Russia means that Ivanishvili is going to return his country to Moscow’s sphere of influence, well, what does that say about the other Georgians who hold the president at least partially responsible—for giving into Russian provocation?
Another surprise about this election is that people seem to be accepting the outcome, because I haven’t seen anything in the Georgian press about calls for street protests to challenge the preliminary results. (Here is a link to my analysis of the initial outcome and reaction in the Georgian media.) Hopefully the calm will continue after the final counts are announced. Probably, most Georgians will assume there was at least some fraud, or maybe a lot, but there might be little protest this time if people think it’s better for the country to accept the results—which are so far close to a best-case scenario for the opposition.
In the past I’ve written about how politically powerless Georgians used to feel (their words), but how being able to oust Shevardnadze peacefully in 2003 was evidence that the people did have the power to change something. However, they know from experience that that method of change is dangerous. They want to be able to cause change through elections, to move politics from the street into Parliament. Maybe things are finally moving in that direction: an opposition newspaper quoted someone this week saying, “I am so happy that I’m even crying. We were able to prove that the people’s voice (vote) has great power.” Let’s hope the same thing happens during next year’s presidential election.
(Note: If the long names are getting to you, just remember that “shvili” means child in Georgian. So Ivanishvili = Johnson, more or less. Now he doesn’t seem quite so exotic, does he?)