The results of Georgia's parliamentary election on Monday herald the first democratic transfer of power since the Caucasus country won independence in 1991. President Mikheil Saakashvili has been humiliated by his billionaire rival Bidzina Ivanishvili and conceded defeat on Tuesday.
Georgian TV exit polls should be treated with caution because they tend to mirror the ownership of the TV stations doing the polling as much as the views of voters being asked.
On Monday evening after polling stations had closed in Georgia's closely watched parliamentary election, TV station Maestro, which supports the opposition, reported that no less than 63 percent had backed the Georgian Dream party of opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. TV9, a broadcaster that belongs to Ivanishvili's wife Eka, even put support for him at 70 percent.
But even broadcasters Rustavi 2 and Imedi, usually faithful to President Mikheil Saakashvili, reported that the opposition had scored 51 percent, well ahead of Saakashvili's United National Movement. That made it clear that challenger Ivanishvili, who was virtually unknown in Georgia a year ago, is likely to have scored a surprisingly clear success.
According to preliminary results based on the 14 percent of ballots counted so far, Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream is at 57 percent, while Saakashvili's party is at 40 percent and the president's conservative Christian Democrat allies scored 2 percent.
The supporters of Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man with assets of $6.4 billion, streamed through the streets of the capital Tblisi after polling stations closed on Monday night. Thousands gathered on Freedom Square and waved the blue banners of the Georgian Dream party. Convoys of cars snaked through the city wildly honking their horns.
President Saakashvili, whose party had won 57 percent in 2008, gaining 119 of 150 parliamentary seats, has suffered a landslide defeat. Nine years after the Rose Revolution of 2003/2004 swept the pro-Western politician to power, Georgia is voting for change.
First Peaceful Transfer
It's a turning point in Georgian history. More than two decades after the former Soviet republic declared its independence, the parliamentary election could for the first time herald a democratic transfer of power. Georgia's first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was toppled in a 1992 putsch. Eduard Schevardnadze was then driven out of office by Saakashvili.
Saakashvili has blasted Ivanishvili as being a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin and into Tuesday morning had still been hoping that his party might eke out a victory in the end. In a television address on Monday night, he recognized the opposition's big electoral lead but said he was still hoping his camp would secure a parliamentary majority. The National Movement had won most of the 73 direct parliamentary mandates, he said. According to Georgian electoral law, 73 of the 150 parliamentary seats are allocated through victories in constituencies while 77 are awarded via a party list system.
But on Tuesday, he conceded defeat. Speaking on television, he said: "It's clear from the preliminary results that the opposition has the lead and it should form the government. And I, as president, should help them with this."
Opposition leader Ivanishvili declared he had won a parliamentary majority long before Saakashvili's concession speech. He said that according to preliminary data, his coalition Georgian Dream could "expect at least 100 seats, probably even 110 to 120."
"My political plan is very simple," Ivanishvili told TV9. "When our victory is officially confirmed, I hope ... parliament will approve me as a prime minister."
Fear of Uncertainty
But a victory by Ivanishvili could also plunge Georgia into months of political uncertainty. Saakashvili would remain as executive president, facing a powerful opponent as prime minister.
Any instability would be cause for concern for Georgia's Western partners because of its role as a thoroughfare for Caspian Sea oil to Europe and its strategic location between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.
It remains unclear whether the election spells the end of the Saakashvili era. Ivanishvili didn't rule out a cooperation with the president but added that "Saakashvili doesn't want to cooperate with me."
A key role will be played by the current Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom President Saakashvili appointed just a few weeks ago.
Before that, Merabishvili was interior minister and successfully reformed the police service and fought corruption. Merabishvili is one of the few Saakashvili allies who are respected by the opposition. "Merabishvili is cleverer than Saakashvili," Ivanishvili said a few days before the election.
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