MOSCOW — President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has ruled Georgia virtually unchallenged for nearly nine years, declared Tuesday that his party had lost parliamentary elections and would go into opposition.
The surprising turn in Georgia’s post-Soviet history followed an election that was fraught with danger for the country of 4.5 million on Russia’s southern border. But the prospect of the first transfer of power brought about at the ballot box could help develop a still-young democracy and set an example for its authoritarian neighbors.
“This is the first time in my life I had a feeling that we have a democracy here,” said Tamar Chugoshvili, chairwoman of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, who was astonished that Saakashvili had lost but pleased that real opposition had emerged. “I think the majority of the Georgian population shares this feeling.”
Parties led by Saakashvili and his rival, a billionaire businessman named Bidzina Ivanishvili, ran bitterly antagonistic races leading up to Monday’s election, each accusing the other of serious campaign violations, assaults and various dirty tricks. Violence was expected — and fears of civil war were raised — in the event that either side decided the election was rigged and refused to accept the results. Saakashvili’s concession appeared to dissipate the threat.
“I express my respect toward the decision of the majority participating in the elections,” Saakashvili said Tuesday, adding his assurances that the new Parliament would elect a chairman and form a government.
Ivanishvili was not as quick to revert to a conciliatory tone, calling Saakashvili’s democratic reforms a joke based on lies.
The White House congratulated Georgia for the democratic milestone. “Georgian citizens have set a regional and global example by conducting a competitive campaign, freely exercising their democratic rights, and affirming their commitment to undertake a peaceful transfer of power,” a statement from the press secretary said.
The election was monitored by hundreds of international observers, including teams from the Washington-based International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute. “We have gone through the single most competitive election in the history of the country,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who was an IRI delegation leader.
Dreier spoke just before leaving for a meeting at the home of Ivanishvili, who is expected to be the next prime minister.
In comments that might surprise their colleagues in Washington, Dreier said he and other members of Congress were determined to offer Georgians and the new Parliament help in developing ways to work together across political divides.
“There will be challenging days ahead,” he said, “but this can end up to be for the good of the people of Georgia.”
With the votes still being counted, it appeared that Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition had won about 54 percent of the vote and Saakashvili’s United National Movement 41 percent. Until now, Saakashvili has controlled 79 percent of the seats in Parliament.
Chugoshvili said she hoped that Saakashvili’s party would provide vigorous opposition and that neither party would have an overwhelming majority in Parliament.
“Georgian democracy is still very weak, and the domination of one party again would be disastrous,” she said. “I think it will be a challenge for the parties to start working together as well. Too much aggression and hate have been expressed toward each other.”
Saakashvili, who assumed power after a peaceful revolution, and his young, dynamic circle made enormous strides after taking over a chaotic country with a ruined economy in early 2004. They effectively eliminated crime — the streets are safer to walk, day or night — as well as the everyday corruption that distorts life in the former Soviet Union, and they made a despised police force respected.
But Saakashvili’s critics said he resolutely marginalized any political opposition and, with enough votes in Parliament to change the constitution at will, ran the country without due regard to the rule of law and unchecked by separation of powers.
His party pushed through a redistribution of power, taking effect when Saakashvili’s presidential term expires next October, moving from a strong presidential system to one led by a prime minister elected by Parliament. That set off suspicion that he planned to stay in power by becoming prime minister, as Vladimir Putin did in Russia when he came up against term limitations.
Despite the criticism, Saakashvili brought Georgia further along the road to democracy than any other states that emerged from the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic countries, considered an exception because they had been independent longer.
But he had difficult relations with Russia, resulting in a disastrous 2008 war and the loss of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Although Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, is expected to be more palatable to Moscow, it is doubtful that relations between the two countries will improve anytime soon. As Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign relations panel in the upper house of the Russian parliament, pointed out Tuesday, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili are interested in joining NATO, which Russia considers anathema. Both parties desire good relations with the United States.
Saakashvili’s party had been a heavy favorite to retain decisive control of Parliament until revelations of prison abuse two weeks before the election enraged voters. Although human rights groups had complained about the prison system repeatedly, the issue was ignored. Saakashvili quickly appointed one of the system’s chief critics to reform it and fired high-level officials, but the damage was inflicted.
“As the opposition force, we will struggle for the future of our country,” he said Tuesday. “We will struggle for everything that has been created in recent years.”