Voters spurn Georgian leader in spite of strong economic growth

Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has conceded defeat in parliamentary elections and said the opposition now had the right to form a government.

He said: “It’s clear from the preliminary results that the opposition has the lead and it should form the government. And I as president should help them with this.”

Early results showed an opposition coalition led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili with what appears to be an insurmountable lead as voters turned away from Mr Saakashvili and the party that has been in power for almost nine years.

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Mr Ivanishvili confirmed he would take up the post of prime minister.

Mr Saakashvili’s concession of defeat even before the election results were released preserved calm on the emotionally charged streets of the capital, Tbilisi, where support for the Georgian Dream coalition is strongest.

Opposition supporters had 
boisterously celebrated throughout the night. If they had felt deprived of victory, the mood 
very quickly could have turned hostile.

During his nearly nine years in power, Mr 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 Mr 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.

Mr 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 sodomised. 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.

Mr Saakashvili will remain national leader 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. Mr Saakashvili came to power through the peaceful Rose Revolution after a rigged parliamentary vote in 2003.

He said there were deep differences between his United National Movement and the diverse opposition coalition.