Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat on Tuesday after early results in the Caucasus nation’s hotly contested election showed the opposition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in the lead for a majority.
Earlier in the night, Saakashvili had insisted that his United National Movement, which previously held 80 percent of the seats in the parliament, would emerge as victor once again but with 25 percent of the votes counted, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition had 53 percent compared to 42 percent for the president’s party.
Although Saakashvili will stay on as chief executive, constitutional reforms that take effect next year will delegate the bulk of his powers to a newly-elected prime minister. With Georgian Dream in the majority, the coalition will be in a position to elect the premier in late 2013.
The election result is a sobering verdict on Saakashvili’s nine years in office. Whereas he was heralded as a pro-Western reformer when he came to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, his more recent years in office have been marked by increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Human Rights Watch reports that the state uses “excessive force to disperse anti-government protests” and has “prosecuted dozens in misdemeanor trials without full respect for due process rights.” The United States State Department lists “deaths due to excessive use of force by law enforcement officers, cases of torture and mistreatment of detainees, increased abuse of prisoners, impunity, continued overuse of pretrial detention for less serious offenses, worsened conditions in prisons and pretrial detention facilities and lack of access for average citizens to defense attorneys.” Recent revelations of prison abuse and torture evidently put the nail in Saakashvili’s coffin.
Free market reforms that characterized the early years of Saakashvili’s tenure have also come to a standstill, producing a high, 16.5 percent unemployment rate. The economy has continued to expand at an average of 6 percent per year but two-thirds of those between the ages of twenty and 24 are out of work while corruption still stifles business activity and job creation.
Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition and Saakashvili’s United National Movement both claim to be liberally conservative. One of the major difference between them is on Russia. Ivanishvili seeks to normalize relations with his northern neighbor after a brief border conflict in 2008 which saw Russia recognizing the former Georgian provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Saakashvili has accused his rival of being a front for the Kremlin which allegedly financed his election campaign.
Into next year, Saakashvili will be able to continue to exert an influence on foreign policy, setting the stage for confrontation with Ivanishvili who made his fortunate as a businessman in Russia during the 1990s.