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Georgian elections: President concedes shock defeat in peaceful transfer

Mikheil Saakashvili’s party loses control of parliament – one of the first times an ex-Soviet country has seen a peaceful transition.

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili will be Georgia's next prime minister.
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili will be Georgia's next prime minister.
Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

THE PRESIDENT OF GEORGIA, Mikheil Saakashvili, conceded a shock defeat today to a billionaire tycoon in parliamentary polls, ending nine years of dominance that antagonised Russia and brought Tbilisi closer to the West.

Although Saakashvili remains president, the defeat of his United National Movement to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in yesterday’s elections means he will lose control of parliament and the government.

His apparently graceful acceptance of the unexpected defeat marks one of the first times that any ex-Soviet state outside the Baltic countries has seen a peaceful transfer of power since the fall of the USSR.

“It is clear that the [opposition] Georgian Dream has won a majority,” Saakashvili said in a dramatic televised speech after elections hailed as an “important step” for democracy by international observers.

Without specifying the allocation of seats in the future parliament, he indicated that Georgian Dream would have the majority in the new assembly and would form the new government.

‘Monumental development’

“It’s a monumental development. It’s an unprecedented event in any former Soviet republic excluding the Baltic states,” Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director at the International Crisis Group think tank, told AFP.

Ivanishvili appears the favourite to replace Saakashvili’s close ally Vano Merabishvili as prime minister although under current rules he will still have to be nominated by the president and approved by parliament.

Georgian Dream was leading Saakashvili’s United National Movement by 53.15 to 41.6 per cent with over a third of precincts declared in elections to fill half of the seats.

First-past-the-post votes in 73 constituencies will make up the remainder of the 150-seat parliament and the opposition was ahead in partial counts from seven out of 10 such constituencies in its stronghold Tbilisi.

Saakashvili’s campaign was undermined by a prison torture scandal that prompted nationwide protests and also growing fatigue with the larger-than-life lawyer known even to his enemies as simply “Misha”.

‘Someone other than Saakashvili’

Coming to power after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili set Georgia on a staunchly pro-Western path with the aims of NATO membership and escaping the influence of Russia, with whom Georgia fought a brief war in 2008.

Ivanishvili’s victory may give rise a cautious hopes of a less confrontational relationship with Moscow, even though he describes himself as pro-Western and vehemently rejects claims of Kremlin links.

Russia refuses to deal with Saakashvili, who President Vladimir Putin reportedly once vowed to “hang by the balls”.

“The new Georgian leadership is not going to become pro-Russian. It will be easier with someone other than Saakashvili. But it is not worth expecting much,” said Alexander Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Assessment.

- © AFP, 2012

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