Opposition discontent concerning the conduct of Georgia's November parliamentary election in Kvemo Kartli, a region inhabited mainly by ethnic Azeris, helped fuel the protests that culminated in former president Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation. The January 4 vote to elect Shevardnadze's successor was much smoother in Kvemo Kartli, but was not free of irregularities, election observers said.
The fact that Kvemo Kartli did not emerge as a flashpoint of controversy during the presidential vote is an encouraging sign for Georgia's new leadership team, headed by President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili. It also bodes well for continued harmonious relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Close cooperation between Tbilisi and Baku is essential for keeping the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline on track. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Having counted over 50 percent of the ballots, Georgia's Central Election Commission (CEC) declared January 6 that Saakashvili had an "unassailable" lead. Over 97 percent of the 910,000 votes already counted were cast for Saakashvili. Overall, 1.76 million Georgians voted in the election, according to the CEC
Kvemo Kartli was at the center of conflict that flared following Georgia's flawed parliamentary vote November 2. Saakashvili and other then-opposition leaders maintained the Shevardnadze administration had intimidated the region's residents into voting for the pro-government election bloc en masse, and demanded that the area's ballot results be annulled. Shevardnadze's refusal to do so was ultimately a factor that hastened his political demise. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
During the January 4 special election for president, the conduct of the vote in Kvemo Kartli was of primary importance for the Saakashvili-led interim government, which was anxious to draw a sharp distinction between itself and the Shevardnadze administration.
Although the result was largely the same near-universal support for the candidate favored by incumbent authority election observers say the circumstances surrounding the balloting was far freer than in the previous election.
On election day, EurasiaNet correspondents visited dozens of polling stations in the Rustavi, Bolnisi, Marneuli and Gardabani districts. Numerous technical and procedural violations were observed, mainly committed by local election commission members. But few, if any of these violations had a significant impact on the voting outcome. Election observers generally concurred with such an assessment.
"We have not found any serious violations or vote-rigging in Bolnisi," says Wasil Titvinidze, representative of a mobile group of observers from the Young Lawyers Association of Georgia. Titvinidze went on to cite various technical irregularities, saying, for example, that at one polling station in Bolnisi the ballot box was not sealed. Local election commission members sealed it with tape only after observers showed up at the polling station.
Among the widely cited violations was a hold-over practice from the Soviet era, in which one member of a household voted for the entire family. "Many Azeris are coming to the polling stations carrying passports of their wives, sisters and daughters. Such a person, bringing in five or six documents, is demanding a right to vote for all. And at some stations they manage to vote not only for themselves but for all members of the family," said Nelli Naskidashvili, an election commission member at polling station #22 in Mameuli.
Such incidents prompted complaints from local NGO activists. Alibala Askerov, the head of the NGO Heyrat, and an influential figure in Marneuli, said the elections were held in the same way as in the time of Shevardnadze. "Nothing has changed," he said.
Other observers, however, said the presidential vote was better organized than the November parliamentary election. The text of the ballots was in Georgian, but for ethnic Azeris who do not know the official language, many polling stations posted the lists of the presidential candidates in Azerbaijani and in Russian. There was also an abundance of posters and informational bulletins in Azeri and Russian printed for the presidential election, in sharp contrast with the November vote.
Many influential clan elders in Kvemo Kartli adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards the interim government, withholding an endorsement of any candidate. Thus, many Azeris in Kvemo Kartli, perhaps for the first time in recent years, had the opportunity to express their own preference.
During the ballot counting process, election commission officials in various polling stations found that voters had added personalized messages to Saakashvili. Among such messages were "Misha, do not forget about pensioners," and "Misha, fight with corruption."
Both officials and representatives of opposition parties from Azerbaijan canvassed Kvemo Kartli as the presidential vote approached. They largely sought to encourage participation in the election, and not to campaign for Saakashvili or any other candidate.
On January 6, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev -- who was elected amid controversy about the fairness of the October vote congratulated his Georgian counterpart. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Ilham Aliyev is confident that firm friendship, good neighborliness and mutual cooperation between our two peoples will constantly develop," said a report broadcast by the Baku-based Space TV.
Giga Chikhladze is an independent journalist based in Tbilisi.