Georgia’s Saakashvili concedes defeat
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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat in the country’s parliamentary election on Tuesday after partial results showed billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition held a significant lead.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Tuesday conceded defeat in the country’s parliamentary elections after polls appeared to show that an opposition coalition led by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili had an insurmountable lead.
"It is clear that the [opposition] Georgian Dream has won a majority," Saakashvili said in a televised speech.
Returns from a quarter of precincts have Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition surging ahead with 53 percent of the popular vote. Saakashvili’s centre-right United National Movement has 42 percent.
The popular vote based on party lists determines 77 of the 150 seats in parliament, with the remaining 73 lawmakers directly elected in their constituencies. Saakashvili had hoped that he would win big in the second category, but preliminary counts in those votes showed the parties relatively evenly matched.
Ivanishvili responded to the concession by calling for the president to step down. "The only right decision now for Saakashvili would be to resign," he told a news conference at his campaign headquarters on Tuesday.
Both Saakashvili’s ruling party and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream initially claimed victory in Monday's vote, raising the prospect of a post-election stalemate. Any sign of instability in the Caucasus country of 4.5 million would worry the West because of its role as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and its pivotal location between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.
Saakashvili has previously said Ivanishvili would move Georgia away from the West and bring it back into Moscow’s orbit. Ivanishvili, with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.4 billion -- or nearly half the size of Georgia’s economy -- has denied this.
The EU was quick to pledge continuing political and economic cooperation with Georgia in the hours following Saakashvili's concession.
"We look forward to further continued close cooperation," said Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"We remain committed to both political association as well as economic integration," Kocijancic added.
Saakashvili, 44, swept to the presidency in the months after he helped lead the challenge to a November 2003 parliamentary election that sparked widespread protests now known as the Rose Revolution.
While initially winning praise at home and in the West for curbing the corruption that plagued post-Soviet Georgia and bolstering the economy with much-needed reforms, the pro-Western president lost significant political and international clout when he led the country into a disastrous five-day war with Russia over two breakaway regions in 2008.
Opponents have accused him of monopolising power, curtailing democracy and suppressing dissent. Saakashvili damaged his image further by launching his own crackdowns in standoffs with the political opposition.
Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse protesters in central Tbilisi in November 2007. Saakashvili then consolidated power by resigning and calling a snap election, which he won while the opposition cried foul.
Security forces clashed with protesters again in 2010 after activists for the political opposition occupied a central square.
The West has been watching the vote closely. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday in Brussels that the election was “a litmus test of the way democracy works in Georgia”.
In the days before the vote, a video of prison inmates being tortured, beaten and sexually assaulted led to street protests after it was aired on two television channels opposed to Saakashvili.
The furore further undermined Saakashvili’s image as a reformer who had imposed the rule of law and rooted out corruption.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)