There comes a time when election protesters need to sit down and shut up. In Georgia, that time has come. Let's look at the data:
- A credible, pre-election poll shows the president at 46% among the likeliest voters, with projected support at 52%;
- An exit poll that put the president's support at 54% [though with 28% refusing to participate, the results of this poll are highly suspect];
- Two parallel vote tabulations (PVTs) conducted by respected NGOs that put the president's support between 50% and 53%.
- Multiple international observation missions deem the election "broadly democratic" (although not without citing serious shortcomings).
Official results (at this point) give the president 53%. I love a good conspiracy as much as the next person and former Soviets are better than anyone at spinning them, but sane people really need to look hard at how all these disparate data points converged to tell a very clear story: Mikhail Saakashvili exceeded 50% and avoided a run-off.
Instead of wasting their supporters' energy and anger by making them stand outside in the freezing cold for no good reason, the opposition parties (such as they are) should focus their resources on organizing around Misha's shortcomings as a leader and creating a viable alternative. They need to be thinking about the next election now (or, rather, yesterday). Continued carping about this one diminishes their own credibility both with the Georgian electorate and the international community.
One of the biggest strategic errors of parties in this part of the world is they are always fighting the last election, and never thinking about how to win the next one.
Additionally, in advance of the parliamentary elections, they should talk to the Ukrainians about creating a partisan election monitoring program (starting NOW). They need to have a legal, PR and grassroots strategy in place that documents, challenges, quantifies and systematically publicizes election violations. Even the Azadaliq coalition in Azerbaijan managed to get part of a program in place in 2005 (a lot of good it did them, but like the Georgians, before they met with the Ukrainians their idea of challenging the election was running everyone out in the streets to get their heads beaten in by the authorities).
Although I think the Georgian opposition doesn't have a leg to stand on, I don't think the President's victory celebrations should obscure two very important points. First of all, this election had some serious problems, ranging from technical problems (according to IRI's report) to instances of intimidation, problems with voter lists, lack of access to the media and abuse of administrative resources (cited by the ODIHR/International Mission).
While I do not believe the fraud had a substantial impact on the final results, could there have been enough at the margins to push Saakashvili over the 50% threshold? Certainly. Could voters have felt too intimidated to make any other choice? Absolutely. The latter is not the kind of manipulation that can be detected by exit polls or PVTs or measured by observers, but it needs to be taken into consideration.
Secondly, if I were Saakashvili and his advisers, I'd drink my Saparavi today and start tomorrow with a cold-eyed analysis of why an incumbent President who enjoys substantial administrative advantages and an exceptionally weak opposition barely managed to get majority support. That's embarrassing and certainly no mandate. I was amazed at how deeply Georgians were troubled by November 7th, a traumatizing event to people who thought the country was on the road to democracy. I agree. The West also needs to keep the screws turned on Saakashvili. However, with a strategic pipeline located on Georgian soil, the latter suggestion is probably wishful thinking.