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Georgian President Hails Poll Victory

Opposition considers future strategy as governing party claims election triumph.
By Mikhail Vignansky
The Georgian capital Tbilisi was quiet the day after a parliamentary election in which the governing party claimed a resounding victory but the opposition claimed mass ballot fraud.



An international observers’ report gave a generally positive verdict on the poll but also noted a number of significant violations.



“I am astonished at the level of support we received,” said President Mikheil Saakashvili, after early results showed his National Movement with a clear lead over the opposition.



“I want to say that regardless of whether the National Movement obtains a constitutional majority [in parliament], we are not planning to make any changes to the constitution and what’s more we will not make any changes without consulting the whole political spectrum and involving the opposition.”



The opposition met on the evening of May 22 to consider its options, after preliminary results suggested that its main grouping, a nine-party coalition, had won just over 16 per cent of the vote, well behind the National Movement with close to 60 per cent.



Two other opposition parties, the Christian Democratic Movement and the Labour Party, also looked likely to surpass the five per cent threshold for representation in parliament.



If confirmed, these results from the proportional representation ballot – which accounts for half the 150 seat in parliament – combined with those from the 75 first-past-the post constituencies, may give the National Movement a two-thirds majority in parliament, leaving it with effective control over all legislation.



The international observer mission was more cautious than it was during the January presidential election in which Saakashvili was re-elected, stressing that its findings were only a preliminary report.



The mission said, "Political stakeholders... made efforts to conduct yesterday's parliamentary election in line with international standards, but a number of problems were identified which made their implementation uneven and incomplete."



The observers’ statement said there was evidence of intimidation, adding that 22 per cent of observers assessed the count as “bad or very bad”.



Joao Soares, head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation, told a news conference, “These elections were not perfect, but since I was here in January for the presidential election, concrete and substantial progress has been made. Problems and much work remain.”



After the release of an exit-poll conducted by the Estonian Jaan Tonosson Institute, the opposition coalition held a 10,000-strong rally at 2 am outside Tbilisi’s Palace of Sport, at which leaders declared that they had received 34 per cent of the vote and the National Movement just 30 per cent.



After this announcement, the crowd burst into thunderous cheers, which drowned out even the excitement of the goals in the Champions League final being played out at the same time in Moscow between Chelsea and Manchester United. Opposition supporters spoke with anger about the decision of the authorities to hold the count at the same time as the football match, forcing them to choose between monitoring the vote and watching the game.



Many of the demonstrators were wearing black-and-white masks saying, “Don’t falsify” and “We are not afraid.” Opposition leader Georgi Tortladze warned that if the preliminary results were confirmed, “the authorities will definitely get an uprising.”



However, the turnout at this rally was not as large as in the demonstrations that followed the January presidential election.



The Central Electoral Commission said that just over 1.9 million people voted in the election, giving a turnout of 55 per cent.



“The elections took place normally on the whole; voting was conducted transparently, freely and democratically in the country,” said commission spokesman Zurab Kachkachishvili.



The commission has annulled the results from 14 polling stations out of a total of more than 3,500.



The opposition said it had evidence of ballot boxes being stuffed and its representatives being intimidated.



David Gamkrelidze, head of the election headquarters of the nine-party opposition coalition, said voting took place in an atmosphere of “unprecedented terror.”



One campaigner for the opposition, Geronti Katsia, was killed in western Georgia during the election. The authorities said his death was not connected to the polls.



The opposition has been changing its tactics since the disputed presidential election, and says it will not be making appeals for support from the West as it did before. Critics of the government say they have less trust in international observer missions after they gave a generally positive assessment of the January ballot.



“The United States ought to be friends with the whole of Georgia, not just with Saakashvili,” said former foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili, who heads the Path of Georgia movement.



She called the current row between Russia and Georgia “a performance” in which the two sides were deliberately collaborating.



“What has been happening recently between Georgia and Russia suggests to me certain coordinated actions between the two countries, a performance,” she said. “If that is not the case, the situation carries great risks for Georgia. The opposition knows how to talk to Russia. It should not be abuse, as now, but diplomacy that takes into account the national interests of Georgia.”



Georgian experts are divided as to whether the election represents a step forward for the country.



Vladimir Papava, an analyst with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, said he was disappointed by the international attitude to elections in his country.



“I have the feeling that there are two models for the western attitude to democracy - one for themselves and another for countries like ours,” said Papava. “The Germans, French and English would not consent to live in the kind of democracy they are proposing for us. The West is closing its eyes to much that it ought not to.”



The result, Papava said, was that Georgia was being sucked into what he termed “Russia’s liberal empire”.



Archil Gegeshidze, another analyst, was more positive. “Of course I did not observe the elections as an observer, but I think that these elections were held more calmly and democratically [than before],” he said. “The result surprised me – I thought the opposition would get more votes.



“The main question is what kind of majority they will get – a constitutional one or just a plain majority, but I think that in any case, this parliament has a chance of being better than the previous one.”



The final results of the election will only be known in 18 days’ time, while the final observers’ report will be presented in eight weeks’ time.



Mikhail Vignansky is a correspondent for Vremya Novostei newspaper in Tbilisi.

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