MOSCOW — He was the star of Georgia’s Rose Revolution. As president, he cracked down hard on corruption, sought to refashion his country along Western lines and made government services efficient and effective. He also led Georgia into its disastrous war with Russia in 2008, allowed abuses in the criminal justice system to fester and earned a reputation for capricious arrogance.
Now President Mikheil Saakashvili is stepping down after nearly a decade in office — and on Sunday, Georgia’s voters made it abundantly clear that they are not interested in prolonging his political legacy.
Exit polls Sunday evening showed two-thirds of the vote going to the handpicked ally of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who came to power last year in opposition to Saakashvili. The president’s favored candidate, Davit Bakradze of the United National Movement, came in second in a field of 23, but got only about 20 percent of the vote, two independent exit polls said.
Bakradze congratulated the presumed winner, Giorgi Margvelashvili, of the Georgian Dream coalition, just half an hour after polls closed and before any official results had been reported.
“We put our ancient tradition into practice and demonstrated that we are balanced, we are Europeans,” Ivanishvili told jubilant supporters in Tbilisi. “Our huge victory, you should know it, is that we will become members of the most successful nations within the next 20 years. If there will be anyone successful in the world, Georgia will be among them — I assure the Georgian people about it. But we need a little bit more patience. Next year will be for calming down.”
Georgians may find the idea of a new president refreshing, but Margvelashvili, a former university rector, is hardly a dynamic leader. And he’ll be moving into an office of significantly reduced importance. Last year, Georgia decided to rejigger its political system to put most of the power in Parliament — that is, into the hands of the prime minister.
Ivanishvili made a fortune worth billions in Russia before returning to Georgia and going into politics, and relations with Moscow have warmed over the past year — a bit. But Ivanishvili also says he wants good ties with the West, and Georgia has been pursuing an association agreement with the European Union.
As it happens, Ivanishvili also intends to step down, though he has promised to remain active in public affairs. He said last week that he expects to name his successor on Tuesday or Wednesday. In this way, the next political leader of Georgia will be chosen — though Parliament, dominated by Georgian Dream, will have to give its approval.
On Georgian television Sunday evening, Bakradze was conciliatory.
“As an opposition leader, I am ready to cooperate with the government,” he said, “and to work with the new president on all those issues which are essential for the better life of our people.”
Dozens of former officials from Saakashvili’s government have been investigated or charged with crimes since Ivanishvili became prime minister. Georgia has been cautioned by Western nations not to pursue victor’s justice against former incumbents, but Ivanishvili contends that the previous government was rife with lawlessness and that criminals should be held accountable.On television Tuesday, he said that Saakashvili will not be subject to a “political” pursuit, but that he might well face legal questioning once he leaves office — particularly over the death of a former prime minister.
“I, as a citizen, do not want my president to be questioned or be imprisoned — this is not good for the country’s image,” the prime minister said. “However, the prosecutor's office and the court exist and I do not interfere in their affairs.”
Sunday’s election took place with few disruptions or allegations of irregularities. A poll watcher for Transparency International had to leave her post at midday when she went into labor.