Georgia‘s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has conceded defeat in parliamentary elections, saying the opposition led by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili will form the country’s new government.
In a TV address, Saakashvili said his ruling United National Movement (UNM) had lost to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition. He urged Georgians to respect the result. “We think their [the opposition’s] views are wrong, but democracy works this way,” he said.
Officials figures have yet to be confirmed but government sources said the coalition would have 84 parliamentary seats and the UNM 66. Ivanishvili’s six-party coalition appears to have won about 51% of the popular vote, with 41% for UNM and 9% for other parties.
The results are a blow to Saakashvili, who led Georgia’s rose revolution in 2003. They also amount to an extraordinary moment in its post-Soviet history, with power transferred for the first time democratically and thus-far peacefully between rival political forces.
Georgia is now entering a new, messy and uncertain transitional era.
The new parliament is set to nominate Ivanishvili to become prime minister. Saakashvili then has to approve the nomination and could, theoretically, reject it twice, triggering a constitutional crisis.
On Tuesday, however, Raphaël Glucksmann, a senior presidential adviser, said that Saakashvili would not seek to thwart Ivanishvili. “Saakashvili is very disappointed [with the result]. But one thing he is certain about is that leaders don’t cheat in elections, and don’t govern against the popular will,” he told the Guardian, adding that the “political dynamics” were with the opposition.
The big political question is whether Saakashvili and Ivanishvili can co-operate, in the wake of an election campaign characterised by mutual vitriol. Government sources painted Ivanishvili, who made his $6.4bn (£4bn) fortune in Russia, as a Kremlin stooge; the opposition branded Saakashvili a tyrant.
Under Georgia’s constitution, the president will retain executive powers and carry on until the end of his term next October.
After that Georgia shifts from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Over the next 12 months, then, Saakashvili will have to work closely with Ivanishvili, the likely prime minister, and consult with him on foreign policy and agree to his state budget.
Ghia Nodia, a former education minister who now runs a Tbilisi thinktank, said: “You have Saakashvili’s emotionality and Ivanishvili’s bizarre character. But it’s in both their interests to co-operate.
“If Ivanishvili accepts this power-sharing arrangement, he will see it as a transitory stage towards acquiring full power,” he said.
Nodia said the president deserved credit for allowing the democratic process to take its course: “Whatever happens next, Saakashvili has vindicated himself to an extent. He is not a perfect democrat. But he is more democrat than autocrat. In autocracies, oppositions can’t win elections.”
Excluding the Baltic states, the only former Soviet country where an incumbent leader has conceded an election is Ukraine, with President Viktor Yushchenko accepting defeat in 2010. Since then, however, the winner, Viktor Yanukovych, has rapidly dismantled Ukraine’s democratic structures, impervious to EU and US concern.
On Tuesday some pessimists said they feared that Ivanishvili might be tempted to emulate Yanukovych and could mete out judicial punishment to his defeated political enemies. “The deep divisions in the country are slightly threatening. I sense vengeance, not just among people in the street but among [Georgian Dream] politicians who will be in the new parliament,” Nodia said.
Another unanswered question is Ivanishvili’s policy towards Russia.
The tycoon has said his foreign policy priorities are similar to Saakashvili’s, and include European integration and Nato. But he also pledged to improve relations with Vladimir Putin and Russia, which have been disastrous since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. If Ivanishvili does pursue Nato membership, this will put Georgia on a collision course with the Kremlin.
Russia welcomed the preliminary results of Georgia’s parliamentary election on Tuesday, saying ties that had been frozen in the wake of the 2008 war could be renewed following Saakashvili’s defeat.
“We are definitely looking forward for a fresh, new non-hostile, sober leadership in Georgia,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told the Guardian.
A new leadership would be “very good, very positive for us”, he continued. “If they have more political wisdom under a new leadership, then lots and lots of new roads can be opened for the country.”
Russia cut ties with Georgia in the wake of the 2008 war over South Ossetia, and both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the current prime minister who was president at the time of the war, have refused to speak to Saakashvili.
Relations are expected to improve under Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s. Peskov said the Kremlin had had no contact with Ivanishvili in the run-up to the vote. “We don’t know him,” he said. “We’ll continue to watch very closely the preliminary results in Georgia, where the people are not in favour of the acting authorities so they should be changed.”
Georgian government sources said they had not been expecting to lose Monday’s election. Opinion polls had put Saakashvili’s party in front.
They conceded that a video broadcast on 19 September showing prison officers beating and raping inmates with broom handles had turned public opinion against the authorities. Voters in the Georgian Orthodox church – unhappy with the government’s socially liberal policies – had also supported the opposition in huge numbers, they said.
Speaking at a victory rally on Monday night, Ivanishvili described his political plan as very simple. “When our victory is officially confirmed, I hope … parliament will approve me as a prime minister,” he told Channel 9 television, which he owns.