Democracy Lab

Georgia's Electoral Showdown

Emotions are running high as Georgians vote in a watershed parliamentary election.

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.

Ivanishvili has delivered mixed signals about his potential reaction to an election defeat, delivering a message of defiance to his Georgian electorate and a mollifying one to international interlocutors. "It is unimaginable that the West will support those who have created this sadist system," he said last Saturday at a massive outdoor rally in Freedom Square, which his party absurdly claimed was attended by 600,000 people -- over 10 percent of the country's population. In September, Ivanishvili lashed out at the U.S.-government-funded National Democratic Institute for a poll it released showing the UNM with a commanding, 25-point lead; the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi defended the group, stating that its polls are "conducted professionally and based on legitimate methodology."

Meanwhile, according to Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, Ivanishvili told a group of Western journalists the next day that, "We have no problem taking the role of opposition." Congressman David Dreier, who led an election monitoring team from the International Republican Institute, met with Ivanishvili on Sunday as well, and told me that the Georgian Dream leader was "very conciliatory and seemed to be desirous of encouraging his supporters to respect the results." In an interview last week, Giga Bokeria, a close confidant of Saakashvili who serves as his National Security Advisor and also chairs the country's Interagency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections, likened Ivanishvili's messaging to that of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who spoke militantly in Arabic and moderately in English.

Ivanishvili's mercurial statements about the election aftermath accentuate the mystery that surrounds the man who remains an enigma even to many of his supporters. Ranked 153 on the Forbes list of the world's richest men, he is worth an estimated $5.5 billion, half of Georgia's GDP. Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia in the heady years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and his reluctance to say nary a negative word about Vladimir Putin -- a sure vote-getter in Georgia, where a fifth of the country's territory is occupied by Russia as a result of a 2008 war over two breakaway territories -- have left him open to the accusation that he is a Kremlin stalking horse.

Unlike many a gaudy Russian oligarch, he lived an existence more akin to Bruce Wayne and Howard Hughes, anonymously doling out vast amounts of cash to Georgian charities, building projects, and artist bursaries, all the while ensconced within a glass-enclosed mansion high up in the hills outside Tbilisi. Hardly anyone in the world, never mind here in Georgia, had ever heard of Ivanishvili until he decided to announce his creation of the Georgian Dream coalition -- an alliance of six parties, some radically different from one another.

Despite the heated campaign rhetoric, voting day was remarkably calm. The government declared Monday a national holiday, and residents of Tbilisi -- a perennial opposition stronghold, regardless of whoever is in power -- took advantage of the beautiful weather to stroll the city's boulevards, dine at cafes, and vote. The combination of over 62,000 domestic election observers, 1,600 international observers, and 3,300 accredited journalists -- all for an electorate of roughly 3.5 million people -- may have made Monday's vote the most observed election in history. Yet while there were few complaints registered at the polls, a sense of grievance was expressed by many opposition supporters, who felt that there was no way the government could win the election except via fraud.

"I've watched TV in the last days and I have a feeling it won't be fair," Gulnazi, a Tbilisi pensioner who declined to give me her last name, said. Tata, a 25-year-old marketing specialist who also declined to give her surname, repeated a charge I heard frequently in my travels across the country over the past few days, which is that government employees have been intimidated into attending UNM events. "People working for government ministries are told if they won't vote for #5 [the ruling party's number on the ballot] they could lose their jobs. They take people from work to rallies."

Many opposition supporters, conditioned by rhetoric that Saakashvili is a dictator hell-bent on staying in power no matter the cost, are convinced that he will use violence to put down opposition protests. Salome Chukhua, a 22-year-old Tbilisi resident and opposition supporter, told me that the president has "a very clever plan to develop the police and armed forces to use them for himself. I'm not sure if all police officers, Internal Ministry and Ministry of Defense [officials], support the government. Yet there is still fear that they will use arms against the people." At his rally in Tbilisi last weekend, Ivanishvili spoke behind bulletproof glass window panels, a precaution that Saakashvili does not take.

The government has written off such complaints as cynical fear mongering by a pro-Russian candidate meant to gain Western sympathy. "Ivanishvili's much more afraid of Putin than he is of us," Raphael Glucksmann, a senior advisor to Saakashvili since 2008 (and the son of French philosopher André Glucksmann) told me over the weekend. "Unless he kills a child in front of CNN, he's not going to prison," he assured me.

Ivanishvili's combative rhetoric, oft-repeated predictions that a huge victory will be thwarted by massive fraud, and his portrayal of the election as a live-or-die moment for Georgian democracy, have raised his supporters' expectations to such an extent that they will not accept anything less than outright victory. But Saakashvili's perhaps quixotic aspiration for membership in the European Union and NATO provide an incentive for the government to behave well and ensure a successful election and aftermath. Internationally broadcast images of a police crackdown are the last thing that Saakashvili -- who has already tested the patience of his Western allies with the 2008 war he helped to spark -- needs. The government's plan in dealing with post-election protests, Glucksmann told me, is to "hide the police" so as to prevent the possibility of clashes. Their job on election night and in the days thereafter will be to protect public buildings from potential attempts to occupy them, he says, and all police officers will be operating under "strict rules of engagement."

Claims of voter intimidation aside, I found Georgians to be remarkably well informed and willing to express their views. Most voters I interviewed over the past few days -- and I spoke to dozens both in Tbilisi and in villages -- had strong opinions, and did not seem afraid to voice them.

Complicating the situation is Georgia's mixed electoral system in which 73 seats out of the 150-member parliament are elected from single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77 seats are selected proportionally from the nationwide vote. Georgians therefore get two votes: one for a local candidate, the second for a party. This system is widely considered to favor the ruling party, as it has a much better chance of winning majoritarian seats due to opposition parties splitting the anti-government vote. Indeed, while exit polls showed the opposition gaining some 51 percent of the national popular vote, the UNM announced it won an overwhelming number of single-mandate seats, thus ensuring it a majority in parliament.

One of the keys to Ivanishvili's success was his ability to unite a group of disparate and small opposition parties, usually prone to infighting, to join together under his banner. Yet the uneasy diversity of the Georgian Dream coalition, and the country's electoral system, may be its undoing. Ivanishvili wanted to avoid giving any individual party in his coalition too much power, and so he dispersed members of the various parties throughout the party's proportional list so as to dilute the number of seats that any one party could obtain. As the formation of a government will likely require a degree of cross-party wrangling, the UNM now has the opportunity to pick off individual members of the GD coalition or work with yet another opposition party to form a governing majority. "Even if GD wins a majority, the UNM could form a government because they're more cohesive," a long-time Western observer of Georgian politics told me.

Underneath the stories of pro-government voter suppression and opposition rhetoric that seemed to reject the institutions of government itself, however, lies a more important story, which is that Georgians have enthusiastically shown their support for democratic processes: The same NDI poll that so angered Ivanishvili, for instance, found that 40 percent opposed the various fines the government levied on the opposition for campaign finance violations. An earlier NDI poll found that over 70 percent of citizens opposed the government's early attempt to strip Ivanishvili of his citizenship (Ivanishvili relinquished his Russian citizenship, but maintains French citizenship). Less than one-third of UNM voters backed either of these moves. Such findings demonstrate a hunger for competitive politics in Georgia, even if many voters may have no love for Ivanishvili, his coalition partners, or his style of politics.

Taking part in an election that, by all early indications, was free and fair, the Georgian people have done their job. Now responsibility lies in the hands of their respective political leaders. Billionaires and headstrong presidents are used to getting what they want. If there's one thing that Ivanishvili and Saakashvili have in common, it's reluctance to compromise. But Georgia's young democracy now hinges on whether these two men are willing to do just that.

AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Save Benghazi

How the citizens of Benghazi are pushing back against the killers of a U.S. diplomat many considered their friend.

Amid the stinging acrid smoke and triumphal yells of the protestors who had just occupied the base of Benghazi’s Islamist Ansar Al Sharia militia last weekend, a big man in a yellow polo shirt pressed through the crowd. Mistaking me for an American, he introduced himself as a politics professor, Ehad El-Fawsi, then apologized on behalf of his city for the death of “my” ambassador. “He was a good man.”

Encounters like these are a frequent occurrence for the few westerners still in Benghazi following the death of ambassador Chris Stevens and three fellow diplomats on September 11.

The narrative from Washington briefings paints this eastern Libyan port city as a den of jihadists, but the reality on the ground is very different. There is real sorrow at the death of Stevens, who had made the city his second home. “People feel responsible. He was so good, he was so interested in what civil society was doing,” said Hana Al Galal, a prominent civil rights activist, who had been due to meet Stevens the day after he died.

She, like many others, fears that the triumph of last year’s Arab Spring revolution in throwing off the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi may be eclipsed by militants ushering in a new one. “Everybody is rallying against extremists, against all brigades,” she told me. “We are not going to go from darkness to darkness.”

And rally they did. Last Friday, after a protest they dubbed “Save Benghazi,” thousands of mostly young male protestors decided they had had enough, and marched on the militia bases. I watched the first assault, on the local headquarters of the Shahouda Abu Salem militia, and it was an extraordinary experience. Hundreds of local teenagers forced the gates of a compound surrounded by crumbling apartments from the city’s colonial Italian past. Militiamen, still clutching their guns, were manhandled into the street.

Ansar Al Sharia, the Islamist unit blamed by Libya’s de facto president Mohammed Magarief for involvement in the assault on the US consulate, was the next to go. Once the bearded militiamen were respected for bringing security to Benghazi; in more recent times they were feared, booming through the streets in their black-flagged jeeps.

After the attack on Stevens, Ansar’s adherents braced themselves for retaliation, deploying anti-aircraft guns deployed against fearfully anticipated U.S. drone strikes. But they had no answer to the thousands of protestors who marched down a narrow street to the front of the militia’s main compound. The militiamen fired a volley of shots over the heads of the protestors, then fled. In minutes, their compound was ablaze, inspiring scenes at once triumphant and farcical.

By the time this correspondent got inside, a handful of red-capped military policemen had arrived, to be embraced by the protestors. A lone fire truck was dousing one blaze even as cheering looters set fire to its neighbor. “It’s like in the revolution,” said one military police colonel, Mohammed Ben Eisa. “We're taking orders from the people.”

The night ended several miles away, when long columns of cars spilled protestors onto the street outside a third base, a former farm complex of the Islamist Rafalla Al Sharia militia. This time they came under fire, four protestors dropping dead.

Chaos ensued as more carloads of people arrived. Red tracer sliced the night sky and other cars hooted a way back into town, ferrying the wounded to hospital.

When the smoke cleared, literally, the following morning, the militia was back in their base, and the bodies of six soldiers of the army’s first infantry brigade were found, bound and shot through the head, in a nearby field. Exactly who did the shooting was not clear, and recriminations continue to boil, but it is clear the protestors of Benghazi had made their point.

“I’m so, so, optimistic,” said aviation student Mohammed El Gadari, his face lit up by the blue-red strobes of a military police jeep outside Ansar’s burning compound. “It’s always a problem, how to get rid of these katibas (militias). This is the best way, not by force, peacefully, because no one from any katiba will shoot a local guy.”

"Peacefully" is, of course, a relative term in today’s Libya. But it is clear, at least in this city, that extremism has met its match. Elsewhere in the world this month, jihadists scorched television screens with a wave of attacks on U.S. embassies. In Libya the holy warriors’ image as the Great and Terrible Oz has been shattered by nothing more menacing than thousands of desperate people.

Their desperation is directed in two directions: First, against the jihadists who are blamed for attacks on five diplomatic targets in Benghazi in as many months; and second, against a government seemingly incapable of taking action.

That sense of the government’s passivity remains -- though it has taken a somewhat new twist. While Tripoli has announced that all “illegal” militias will be disbanded, if necessary by force, it has also given permission for Benghazi’s biggest Islamist units, Rafallah and the 17 February Martyrs Brigade, to remain.

Officially, they have been declared part of the army. Officially, each must now work with an army-appointed commander, a ruling that has raised eyebrows. Benghazi’s own MPs in Libya’s new parliament have called for more, demanding a total ban on all militias.

But that is not so simple. Islamists are a powerful force in the government. It must be said that there are Islamists and Islamists. Ansar Al Sharia were considered the wild boys of the Islamist groupings, and, crucially, they lacked government support.

That support is heavy for Rafalla and February 17 -- and not just from the Libyan government. Qatar, which backed Libya’s Arab Spring with aircraft, money, and supplies, is intimately connected with the brigades through Ali Salabi, the Doha-based cleric who is the mentor of Libya’s Islamists and who receives generous airtime on Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel.

Fawzi Bukatef, commander of 17 February, was a political prisoner released a few years ago after talks between the Gaddafi regime and Salabi. Salabi’s younger brother Ishmail runs Rafalla Al Sahati.

Ismail met journalists this week wearing a long white silk robe, through which seeped blood from two bullet wounds in his thigh sustained on the night of the protests. He presented this as verification of his claim that among the protestors were some Gaddafi elements bent on settling scores.

He insists his men played no part in the attack on the U.S. consulate, and says that he even advised diplomats to leave the city after a rocket attack on the convoy of the British ambassador in June wounded two UK bodyguards. “I advised the Americans and the British to leave. The British took the advice and left Benghazi, the Americans did not.”

Even so, Islamists of every stripe are finding it hard to gain traction in Libya. First, Libya is already a conservative Muslim country, one happy in its faith, and relatively secure that this faith is not in danger. There is popular resentment at seeing Islamists claiming to speak for Libya’s Muslims. A few weeks ago I met with the campaign manager of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, who explained to me that the party had come second in the elections because Libyan people “did not understand Islam.” Afterwards, my translator, a young and pious medical student, told me it was not the man’s business to tell other Libyans how to observe their faith.

Second, Libyans welcome broader contacts with the outside world. “Libyans don’t want an extremist regime. We’ve already experienced an extremist regime,” said Bilal Bettemer, one of the organizers of the Save Benghazi rally. “In Benghazi there is a big unemployment problem, and only business can solve it, not oil on its own. We want to open out to the world, to Europe, to the Gulf.”

Like Galal, Bettame, a law student, knew Stevens, working with him on a joint foreign policy forum, one of a dozen initiatives the ambassador was pursuing. “With Chris Stevens Libyans had a special relationship," says Bettame. "He was so supportive.”

During the 2011 revolution, the constant refrain from rebel formations was that they were “not Al Qaeda,” a reaction to Qaddafi characterizing the rebellion as jihadist. One commander of a Misratan militia unit last summer refused to have his picture take until he had stuck a cigarette in his mouth. “Qaeda don’t smoke,” he explained.

The Islamists suffer also because, while their units fought hard in last year’s revolution, so did everybody else, robbing them of the claim to have secured Libya’s freedom. And the heavy lifting of that war was provided by western warplanes.

Salabi concedes that ordinary Libyans appreciate the alliance bombing campaign. “What NATO did helped us,” he says. “But it does not mean they can come when they want. Maybe there is a secret agreement for the Americans to use our air space.”

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Islamists here is that Libya is rich. Present in everyone's mind is the fact that Libya has only six million people but enormous reserves of oil. There is no need for an absolutist government, only one that is competent enough to share the oil wealth equally. Asked how they want Benghazi to look in five years, residents opt for a cross between Dubai, Paris, and London. Not Riyadh.

Libya’s parliament is due to choose a government in the coming days. The protests of Benghazi have given it a popular mandate, should it grasp the nettle, to bring order to the extremists. In some parts of Libya this should be easy. Most of the country’s 500-odd militias are drawn from their own communities: The most powerful, those of Misrata and Zintan, mind their own business, under control of city hall. For the others, a bold administration can be fairly sure of popular support if it tells them to disband.

“Ansar al Sharia” -- the name means “Partisans of Sharia” -- are another matter. Since their eviction, the members of the group have scattered, though a bomb that exploded harmlessly against the wall of an interior ministry building in Benghazi this week indicates that their members are still around. Salabi warned that denying them a base might prompt them to “take to the shadows.”

The people on the streets of Benghazi are skeptical that Libya’s chaotic authorities will dare to take such a step. “The government is part of the problem. The government, after the revolution, armed these militias,” complained El Fawsi, the professor, that Friday night.

Nevertheless, he remained optimistic. The protest, he insisted, had shown militias they are not wanted. And, he hoped, it had shown the outside world that far from rejecting the outside world, Libyans, after 42 years of dictatorship, are eager to embrace it.