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The problem with winning

By M. Alkhazashvili
(Translated by Davit Kipiani)
Wednesday, May 28
For President Saakashvili, a win without a vulnerability-exposing runoff in January’s presidential election was crucial, but the overwhelming victory of his party in last week’s parliamentary elections was overkill.

A majority was critical, a slim constitutional majority even better, but the ruling party’s shocking dominance of parliament—nearly 80 percent of the seats, having won 59 percent of the popular vote—has turned the institution into a one-party domain.

They may say that was a pleasant surprise, but hasty changes to the electoral system made it an easily foreseeable likelihood. The ruling party’s access to and abuse of administrative resources made it a near-inevitability. And the audacity of the victory margin actually weakens the government’s hand.

The ruling party did run a good campaign. It had a constructive message, unlike most of the opposition. And it can point to exit polling and spin observer verdicts to defend the legitimacy of its huge win.

Unfortunately, many voters distrust both.

Any wells of trust are drained dry by opposition allegations of fraud and dictatorship. Whether the opposition can go beyond besmirching the government to running a successful post-election campaign depends on their actions and popular support, now gauged by turnout at street protests.

If an opposition campaign gains steam, it could pose a threat to the state. Any government would use force if there were a clear danger, but the Georgian government has put itself in a bind. Its iron-fisted response to the November demonstrations eroded its popular mandate, and these elections have not won it back. Equally important, advancing toward NATO membership is tied to successful elections and maintaining a clean image.

A violent crackdown on protests of an unfair election would drastically set back Georgia’s foreign policy ambitions.

The government clearly knows this: witness the restrained response to the aggressive opposition rally on Independence Day. But the government may one day feel forced to untie its hands, and the consequences will be good for no one.