Georgians Vote in Polarized Elections
CNN.com’s Security Clearance blog
By Jill Dougherty
Independent international observers in the Republic of Georgia described the country’s parliamentary election Monday as peaceful with no significant violence but warned that the opposition may be prematurely declaring victory.
Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. congressionally funded democracy support organization, spoke with CNN by telephone at 11 p.m. Tbilisi, Georgia, time, as Georgia’s Central Election Commission was counting votes. As he spoke, the sound of honking horns and celebration by the opposition was audible in the background.
“From what I have seen,” Craner said, “it’s been very calm and peaceful, and it appears that there were no significant problems on election day. There was a blizzard of complaints but nothing that was systemic where you could look at election complains and say, ‘Here’s how someone is trying to steal the election.'”
Opposition forces are citing exit polls, but Craner said there “was no independent exit poll here, which was an important missing element, unfortunately.”
Craner, who has observed polling globally for many years, said, in Georgia, he had seen something he had never seen before: “murky funding sourcing, at best” for international observers, for exit polling and for “parallel vote tabulations” for representative samples.
“There was so much money sloshing around,” Craner said, “that they were bringing in privately-funded observer groups and using privately funded exit polling … and it just stirred up people’s emotions here in an already polarized election. And that’s something I wouldn’t hope to see in the future anywhere else.”
Both sides – the party currently in power, the United National Movement, and the opposition coalition called the “Georgian Dream,” headed by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili – have poured large amounts of money into the election.
The government’s Central Electoral Commission has been professional and independent, however, said Craner. “There’s no question in my mind … the election commission can be relied upon.”
“But the question is will everyone stay calm when the results come out,” he added.
The commission is counting the votes on Monday night and is expected to release preliminary results, at least, on Tuesday.
Another international official observing the election who spoke with CNN by phone without direct attribution because of the sensitivity of the issue, agreed that the claim of victory by the opposition is premature.
“There are two distinct elections here,” this official explained. Each Georgian was given two ballots when they entered the voting location. One was for a proportional vote for 77 out of 150 seats in parliament. The other was a single-member vote for 73 parliamentary seats.
“The proportional vote is a party list vote. It’s not district by district,” the official explained. The other is a majoritarian vote. So you could win the proportional race and be a minority in the parliament if you lose the majoritarian vote.”
Exit polls, this official said, “vary dramatically.” Some are funded by partisan interests and have a “huge margin of error.”
Further complicating things, the official added, the government now agrees that the opposition has won the proportional race but no one knows by what percentage.
Counting the votes is potentially the most contentious part of the contest, this official warns, and the process is not yet complete.
How opposition supporters, who have been told they “won the election” will react when the final vote is tabulated is still a question mark.