The opposition coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (see background) claimed victory in a parliamentary election in Georgia.
"I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new [150 seat] parliament," Ivanishvili told a cheering crowd. "I have achieved what I have long been striving for," he said, according to Reuters.
Thousands of supporters of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition celebrated in the streets of the capital Tbilisi, sounding car horns and carrying blue party banners and Georgian national flags over their heads.
But a tense stand-off loomed over the results of the poll, which under Georgia's electoral system allocates seats according to both party lists and constituency victories. At least in theory, UNM could still retain majority in Parliament and obtain the right to nominate the prime minister.
Exit polls showed Ivanishvili's coalition had won more votes in balloting by party list to fill 77 of the parliament seats, while Saakashvili's party claimed it won most of the individual races to fill the other 73 seats.
As the Wall Street Journal wrote, the results cast new doubts on the political legacy of Saakashvili, who was swept to power by the Rose Revolution of 2003 and has since been a staunch ally of the US in the former republic of the defunct Soviet Union.
Back into Moscow’s orbit?
Saakashvili says the Georgian Dream coalition would move Georgia away from the West and back into Moscow's orbit, and has suggested Ivanishvili is doing the bidding of the Kremlin after making his money in Russia.
But analysts see that the government’s bashing of Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge as unfair.
Zaal Anjaparidze, a political analyst in Georgia, recently wrote that the two dominant figures in the campaign were once close allies.
“It is an open secret in Georgian political circles that Ivanishvili was a major financial sponsor of the Saakashvili government’s reforms,” Anjaparidze argues. He says that after the Rose Revolution, Ivanishvili contributed the lion’s share to a fund aimed at boosting state officials’ salaries as a hedge against corruption.
Ivanishvili also helped pay for equipping and arming the reformed police force, and he financed socioeconomic projects that were subsequently promoted as achievements of UNM.
Ivanishvili publicly broke with Saakashvili in 2008, claiming fraud in that year’s presidential and parliamentary elections and castigating his former ally for policy failures and the August 2008 war with Russia. With his huge financial resources and positive image as the country’s most generous philanthropist – and a leadership vacuum on the anti-Saakashvili side – Ivanishvili easily emerged as the face of the opposition, Anjaparidze argues.
Tedo Japaridze, a former Georgian foreign minister and the chief foreign-policy advisor of the Georgian Dream Party, recently wrote for EurActiv that Saakashvili, a hero in the days of the Rose Revolution, has turned the country into “an authoritarian regime, complete with cages and torturers”.
Indeed, the airing by opposition TV stations of footage of inmates being tortured and sexually assaulted in the country’s prisons sparked protests about two weeks before the election. Georgia has one of the world's highest rates of incarceration, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies in London.
The footage undermined Saakashvili's image as a reformer who had imposed the rule of law and rooted out corruption. Saakshvili, president since 2004, has managed to stay in power despite provoking the five-day war with Russia, following which Tbilisi lost control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The presidents' term expires in the autumn of 2013. According to the constitution, Saakshvili cannot be elected for a third term.