Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat Tuesday in parliamentary elections. After a year of polarizing campaign politics, he promised to work with the opposition bloc, the Georgian Dream.
Appearing on Georgian national television, President Saakashvili said: "It is clear that Georgian Dream has won a majority." Conceding his party will be reduced to a minority opposition force in parliament, he vowed: "We will fight for everything that was created to modernize Georgia, to build new institutions and protect this all for future generations.”
With 73 percent of the vote counted, his United National Movement was winning 41 percent of the vote, but the opposition Georgian Dream coalition was winning 54 percent.
Saakashvili, an American trained lawyer and close ally of the West, took pride in fostering democratic reform during his eight years as president. But in recent years, his rule had turned increasingly authoritarian. Several voters told VOA they decided to vote against him after watching videos on television of Tbilisi prison guards abusing and sodomizing prisoners.
The beneficiary of the videos was Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man and founder of the Georgian Dream. Ivanishvili also appeared Tuesday on national television. In addition to claiming victory, he asked President Saakashvili to resign.
That is unlikely. The president has up to one year to set the date for presidential elections. Once a new president is elected, the constitution mandates many presidential powers shift to the new prime minister. Ivanishvili is expected to take that post. It is unclear how an Ivanishvili-dominated parliament will coexist with a Saakashvili presidency during the next year.
Supporters of an opposition Georgian Dream coalition celebrate exit poll results in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2012.
Georgian billionaire and opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, left, celebrates with supporters at his office in Tbilisi Georgia, October 1, 2012.
Opposition supporters reacts on the central square during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2012.
Georgians vote during Parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tbilisi, October 1, 2012. Voters in Georgia are choosing a new parliament in a heated election that will decide the future of Saakashvili's government.
Lines at a polling station in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2012.
An elderly woman casts her ballot at her home in the village of Sartichala in Georgia's Kakhety region, October 1, 2012.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, his wife Sandra Roelofs, and his son Nikoloz at a ballot box before voting in Tblisi, October 1, 2012.
Leader of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, addresses the media in Tbilisi October 1, 2012.
Bidzina Ivanishvili and his wife Ekaterine Khvedelidze pray in a church in Tbilisi, October 1, 2012.
Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition attend an election rally in Tbilisi September 29, 2012.
Minutes after the Georgian president conceded defeat, European observers held a pre-scheduled press conference. Luca Volonte, who leads the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, urged the opposition to work with Saakashvili. “For its part, the opposition must be constructive and responsible and should cooperate for the overall good of society,” said Volonte, an Italian.
Tonino Picula, the leader of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe delegation, said the campaigning period was tilted against the opposition, but the voting was largely fair. “Yes, I believe that Georgia passed the democracy test,” said Picula, from Croatia. “We are talking today in a very peaceful landscape. And this is the first general election after the war.”
Assen Agov, a Bulgarian who headed a delegation of parliamentarians from NATO countries said Monday’s democratic election and the promised peaceful transfer of power will boost Georgia’s candidacy to join NATO. Ivanishvili, the opposition leader, repeatedly promised to uphold Georgia’s existing policy of trying to join NATO and European Union.
But the Georgian Dream leader made his fortune, estimated at $6.4 billion, in Russia. President Saakashvili who lost a war with Russia four years ago, has accused Ivanishvili of being a Russian agent. Ivanishvili has responded by saying that he wants to normalize relations with Georgia’s northern neighbor, something that he says would be impossible with Saakashvili in power.