TBILISI, Georgia -- To appreciate the level of political polarization in Georgia -- which held nationwide parliamentary elections Monday -- take the case of a 10-month-old girl found drowned Sunday evening in a wine jug.
Late Sunday night, reports surfaced that Barbare Rapaliani, an infant from the village of Kolagi, had gone missing. "We were having supper on a second-floor balcony. The child was sleeping on the first floor in her bed," a family member later told a local news outlet. "Five minutes later they went down to see the child, who disappeared, taken from her bed." Barbare was later found in a buried wine jar, half-full of water. Rushed to the hospital, she later died.
Immediately, some family members alleged that the tragedy was not only foul play but politically motivated. Barbare's aunt is a local coordinator for Georgian Dream, a coalition mounting the first serious challenge to the United National Movement (UNM), the dominant ruling party of President Mikhail Saakashvili, which came to power in Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution. Manana Berikashvili, the local parliamentary candidate for Georgian Dream (GD), told an opposition television channel that the girl's aunt "was repeatedly threatened, there were attempts to bribe and threaten her, that's why people have a suspicion that those threats are related to the death of the child." Police began investigating the case and, as of this writing, two relatives were arrested in connection with the case.
The allegation that government supporters would stoop to drowning a 10-month-old baby is the most serious to have arisen in this heated, but largely violence-free, campaign. But they are of a piece with Georgian Dream's narrative. The opposition has portrayed Saakashvili's government -- long a darling of the West for its progressive reforms, determination to resist a resurgent Russian hegemon, and generally underdog position in a region sorely lacking liberal democracy -- as nothing less than an authoritarian dictatorship. That characterization received a massive boost two weeks ago, when a video showing the torture and rape of prisoners was released on national television, throwing what many here assumed to be a surefire UNM victory into serious question. One email message I saw from an opposition activist promised a "Nuremberg Trial" for the present government if Georgian Dream were to prove victorious.
What sort of recriminations, if any, may befall Georgia's leaders is just one of the many questions that make this country's election important. Indeed, that the outcome of the election itself has been so suspenseful these past few weeks is due almost entirely to the surprise entry of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream's billionaire founder, into politics last October. For months, Georgian Dream has declared that the ballot would be rigged, leading many to speculate that the aftermath would be protracted and possibly violent. "We have enough evidence right now to say that the elections are already fraudulent and already being stolen," Ivanishvili told Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin in a recent interview. "We don't have to wait for the first of October because the amount of material is already so large that we can prove and say that this is already election-rigging and this is already a stolen election."
Shortly after noon Monday, Georgian Dream called on its supporters to mass in streets for a "Rally to Defend the Vote" at 7 PM, despite the fact that polls did not close until 8 PM and the official results of the election would not be announced until early Tuesday morning. An exit poll announced on an opposition television channel Monday afternoon (in violation of Georgian law, which prohibits exit polls from being publicized until after polls closed) declared Georgian Dream would achieve an impossibly high 95 percent of the popular vote.