On January 13 Georgia’s Central Electoral Commission (CEC) approved and released the final, official results of the January 5 pre-term presidential election. The process took longer than expected, largely because of contentious counting of disputed votes from a number of precincts, amounting to decimal points and thus not affecting the outcome. Mikheil Saakashvili won narrowly with 53.47% of the votes cast; runner-up Levan Gachechiladze garnered 25.69%; and five other candidates shared the remainder. The country-wide turnout was 56.9%.
The CEC reached this final tally after the results from 18 precincts (out of 3,311) were repealed and/or corrected, almost all in favor of opposition candidates. The CEC took those decisions in 11 cases and the courts in seven cases (CEC Summary Protocol of the Extraordinary Presidential Election, January 13).
In the election’s immediate aftermath, the risk is high that opposition groups may resort to what is known in Tbilisi as the “geopolitics of Rustaveli Avenue” (the capital’s central thoroughfare). This refers to the series of “regime changes” since 1990 that were achieved by concentrating large, potentially turbulent crowds on that avenue near the parliament and governing institutions and forcing the ouster of the incumbent authorities. This can, but does not need to, involve violence. It does involve large numbers of demonstrators, fiery speeches, psychological pressure, and support from sympathetic media.
After the election just held, the losing candidates as well as the alliance of nine groups backing Gachechiladze demand at one and the same time a recount and a runoff. They have not yet settled on one or the other demand. Opposition leaders accuse the authorities of having falsified the results. However, those leaders apparently have very little evidence to submit to courts. Instead they resort to street actions, televised speeches, and pressures including physical ones on the CEC (see EDM, January 9). They do so both by dint of the traditional model of Rustaveli politics and because their legal case, this time, is a weak one.
Indeed the opposition’s representatives on almost all the precinct and district electoral commissions had signed the protocols certifying the results on those levels. Under Georgia’s electoral law, the opposition holds six out of 13 seats on all the local electoral commissions as well as on the CEC. Moreover, decisions are taken by a two-thirds majority. Thus, the law — as amended by the governing parliamentary majority before the election — gives the opposition veto and blocking powers on the local levels. Yet opposition representatives signed the protocols locally, apparently in the self-induced belief (which the opposition had proclaimed throughout the campaign) that Saakashvili was bound to lose country-wide.
In addition to opposition representatives, thousands of local observers and NGO representatives observed the balloting and vote counting. Irregularities did occur, largely for organizational reasons, in this unforeseen snap election and with the electoral law changed in the opposition’s favor at short notice. But, in the consensus view of Western observers and even of opposition members of the local electoral commissions, the balloting and vote counting were on the whole correct.
Thus, opposition leaders seem to have little evidence to submit to courts. Instead, they are mostly showing to the public unsigned copies of electoral commissions’ protocols or other documents without legal value. They also refer to anecdotal allegations of ballot miscounting, but are seldom able to submit proof, and cannot show that the alleged episodes added up to an outcome-changing pattern.
Gachechiladze and other opposition leaders are also harshly criticizing Western observers for having validated the election. For the January 13 demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue they organized placards reading, “OSCE Backs Rigged Elections” and “USA Supports Dictatorship.” The opposition has also organized a purported “vote-fraud exhibition,” focused not so much on proving fraud as on impugning the integrity of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matt Bryza, one of the many Westerners who has validated the election and called on the opposition to stay within the bounds of legality. But opposition leaders are also criticizing the OSCE/ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), even after that body’s election observation mission chief, Dieter Boden, broke with the Western observers’ consensus and questioned the election’s integrity (Frankfurter Rundschau, January 10). Boden is known to prepare a new report on the election, reflecting his modified views. On the whole, such unprecedented criticism of Western observers by the opposition seems designed to influence the observers’ final reports on the election and foreign governments’ assessment of the outcome.
The opposition mobilized tens of thousands of supporters for a demonstration on January 13 on Rustaveli Avenue. The action was peaceful, and the only police presence in sight was a lone patrol car. Georgia finds itself on the cusp between rule of law and the geopolitics of Rustaveli Avenue.
(Civil Georgia, Rustavi-2 TV, Interpress, January 11-13)