Georgia's president concedes election defeat
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili on Tuesday conceded defeat in the parliamentary election and said an opposition coalition led by a billionaire businessman now has the right to form a government.
The concession belied opposition claims that the government intended to steal Monday's election, and allowed Saakashvili to preserve his legacy as a pro-Western leader who brought democracy to the former Soviet republic that he has led for almost nine years.
It also preserved calm on the streets of the capital Tbilisi, where support for the opposition Georgian Dream coalition is strongest. Opposition supporters had boisterously celebrated their victory throughout the night.
"It is clear from the preliminary results of the parliamentary election that the Georgian Dream coalition has secured a majority," Saakashvili said in a televised address. "This means that the parliamentary majority should form the next government and I, as president, within the framework of the constitution, will help make it possible for Parliament to begin its work, choose a speaker and also form a new government."
Saakashvili will remain the leader of the country until his second and last term ends next October. Under a constitutional reform that goes into effect after he leaves office, many of the president's powers will be transferred to the prime minister, who is chosen by Parliament.
This is the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history that a government will be changed by the ballot box rather than through revolution. Saakashvili came to power through the peaceful Rose Revolution after a rigged parliamentary vote in 2003.
He said Tuesday there were deep differences between his United National Movement and the opposition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia.
"We think their views are completely wrong," he said. "But democracy works through the majority of the Georgian people making a decision, and we respect this very much."
Ivanishvili has stated his commitment to pursue Saakashvili's goals of making Georgia an integral part of Europe and member of NATO, while also saying he would seek to restore the ties with Russia that were severed when the two countries fought a brief war in 2008.
International election monitors are expressing concern over the harsh rhetoric used during the campaign, and isolated cases of violence, but overall praised the election.
Tonino Picula, who led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission, said Tuesday that the vote demonstrated a "healthy respect for fundamental freedoms at the heart of democratic elections."
During his nine years in power, Saakashvili has pushed through reforms and attracted international investment that has led to dramatic economic growth. Poverty and unemployment, however, remain painfully high.
Georgians have turned against Saakashvili in recent years. Many accuse his party - which has controlled not only the government and Parliament but also the courts and prosecutor's office - of exercising authoritarian powers.
Saakashvili's campaign was also hit hard by the release two weeks ago of shocking videos showing prisoners in a Tbilisi jail being beaten and sodomized. The government moved quickly to stem the anger, replacing Cabinet ministers blamed for the abuse and arresting prison staff, but many saw the videos as illustrating the excesses of his government.