Long lines and short tempers characterized Georgia's chaotic parliamentary elections on November 2. The results appear to be similarly muddled, with the official totals contrasting sharply with parallel vote tabulations conducted by an independent monitoring organization. Amid charges of fraud, both opposition and pro-government parties were claiming victory. The competing poll results were sowing uncertainty about Georgia's immediate political future.
Preliminary election results released by the Central Election Commission (CEC) appeared to confirm that six political parties had cleared the 7 percent threshold to win seats in the next parliament, State television reported November 3. The CEC said the pro-government For a New Georgia bloc was the leading vote getter with 26 percent of the vote. The radical opposition National Movement finished second with 22.6 percent. The left-leaning Labor Party finished with 15 percent, trailed by the Ajarian regional party, the Union of Georgia's Democratic Revival, which received 8.5 percent, and the moderate opposition Burjanadze-Democrats with 8.2 percent. The business-oriented New Rights received 8 percent. It appeared that another party, Industry Will Save Georgia, would fall just short, with 6.6 percent, of gaining parliamentary representation.
The CEC results contrasted sharply with a parallel vote count conducted by Fair Elections, Georgia's leading monitoring group. According to the Fair Elections figures, the National Movement won with 26 percent, while For a New Georgia gained only 19 percent, or 7 percent less than official preliminary results. Fair Elections also said Labor won 17 percent and the Burjanadze-Democrats 10 percent. Both Revival and New Rights obtained 8 percent.
Meanwhile, final results from an exit poll conducted by a US firm, the Global Strategy Group, showed the National Movement gained 26.4 percent; For a New Georgia won 19 percent; Labor gained 17.5 percent and the Burjanadze-Democrats obtained 10.4 percent; and Revival 9 percent. According to the exit poll, New Rights just cleared the 7 percent threshold. The organization polled over 25,000 voters at 413 polling stations across Georgia.
Despite the contradictory results, Mikheil Saakashvili, the leader of the National Movement, claimed victory in the name of the political opponents to President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration.
"This is a victory for the opposition in general," Saakashvili said in an interview with the Rustavi-2 television channel. "It is important for Georgian society not to let these crooks [members of the Shevardnadze administration] who are sitting at the state chancellery rig the results. ... We have sufficient levers for Georgia to start a completely new life, with a new parliament."
Late on November 3, shots were reportedly fired at a car in which Saakashvili was riding. A suspect was taken into custody. The incident appeared certain to fuel tension in Tbilisi.
Shortly after casting his ballot, Shevardnadze refrained from making any predictions about the composition of the next parliament. "Various results may be expected," the president told journalists. "It all depends on the voters."
Available evidence suggests the vote was marred by widespread irregularities. For example, the Rustavi-2 television channel reported that pro-government police hijacked ballot boxes in the city of Rustavi as they were being delivered to the regional election commission, diverting them instead to the local For a New Georgia bloc's local headquarters, where they were tampered with. Meanwhile, the Imedi television channel said that the vote was "riddled with irregularities" in Kutaisi, Georgia's second largest city. In Tbilisi, at least one instance of ballot box theft was reported, according to Fair Elections.
In addition, there were instances of violence at polling stations, especially in Tkibuli (Imereti region) and several towns of Kvemo Kartli ?a pro-governmental stronghold. In Samegrelo some pro-government MPs reportedly attempted to influence local election commission officials. The Interior Ministry deployed riot police units in Rustavi, Zugdidi, a city in western Georgia and in Mtskheta, near Tbilisi. These deployments did not seem to have interfered with the election process.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Georgia issued a statement November 3, saying that the group's monitoring mission found that the parliamentary elections "fell short of a number of international standards." In particular, the OSCE said "confusion over voter lists contributed to a lack of public confidence." The OSCE statement did not comment on the contradictory polling results.
"These elections have regrettably been insufficient to enhance the credibility of either the electoral or the democratic process," Bruce George, a spokesman for the OSCE monitoring mission, was quoted as saying in the statement.
The CEC announced late November 2 that voting results were nullified in at least eight polling stations throughout the country. CEC chairwoman Nana Devdariani characterized voting irregularities as "of a procedural as well as a criminal nature."
For the average Tbilisi resident, the act of voting was not especially exciting. Despite reports of violations, the majority of Tbilisi citizens spent a large portion of election day waiting in line at polling stations, victims of a combination of circumstances, including administrative incompetence, outdated and confusing voter lists, and, in the opinion of many civil society activists, outright obstruction by the government-dominated election commissions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Election day began relatively innocuously. By noon, reports of scattered irregularities throughout the country were emerging, such as intimidation or exclusion of accredited monitors, voting without identification, and, most significantly, a complete absence of ballot papers in 25 precincts of Kutaisi, a stronghold of the opposition Burjanadze-Democrats. The affected polling stations opened only at 3:00 pm ?seven hours late. Reports also emerged of scattered attacks on precincts by armed groups, and of the detention of two Fair Elections observers in Ajaria.
In Tbilisi, the absence of computerized voting lists was a major source of confusion. Multiple lists were certified, only to be replaced and then have further corrections made, leading to a situation in which no one could be certain that their requested corrections had been implemented. A number of residents complained that they had confirmed their or a family member's existence on the lists the day before the elections, only to return on election day and find their name missing. Supplementary lists, to which a voter is added by hand on the day of the elections, were reinstituted, despite their being the source of so-called "carousel voting" in previous polls, in which some voters went to various polling stations in their precinct and cast multiple votes.
The confusion forced many voters to stand in line up to four hours. A large number of those wishing to cast voters gave up, or returned two, three, or four times to the polling stations, only to find the lines had not shortened. As the day wore on, accusations of impropriety and intimidation increased. Such claims, combined with the burgeoning controversy over the actual results, promised that Georgia would endure yet another long and frustrating wait before the elections could be declared over.
Daniel Sershen is a contributing editor for EurasiaNet who is in Tbilisi to cover the Georgian election and its aftermath. EurasiaNet contributor Jaba Devdariani provided information used in this report.