Democracy Lab

Blindsided

The results of Georgia’s parliamentary election caught American pollsters completely off guard. They should have tried asking the right questions.

Jeremy Rosner looked ashen. The American pollster, a veteran of the Clinton White House, had just learned that the United National Movement (UNM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili had lost the country's October 1 parliamentary elections in an upset to the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Rosner, an executive vice president of the D.C.-based consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, is one of the world's most successful political pollsters, having advised leaders ranging from Tony Blair to Israel's Labor Party to Ukrainian Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko. He had been working for Saakashvili since 2007, and his polls for the Georgian leader had always been pinpoint accurate. He is not used to losing, and when he does lose, he expects it.

But standing that evening in the bar of Tbilisi's Marriott Freedom Square, Rosner was visibly shocked. Just two days earlier, he had met me in the lobby of the city's other Marriott hotel, just down the street, to tell me how a UNM victory was all but assured. His internal polls showed it -- one he conducted in August found the UNM leading GD 55 to 33 percent -- as did a series of focus groups across the country. Polls conducted earlier in the year by rival firm Penn Schoen Berland (hired by GD) which showed the opposition in a virtual dead heat with the UNM, he told me, "are fabricated." Regaling me with stories about how Saakashvili is "more like Clinton than anyone I've ever worked with" and "a force of nature," Rosner had reason to be upbeat: A series of polls by non-partisan outlets had shown the UNM with a healthy lead over the opposition. The National Democratic Institute, for instance, found the UNM leading GD by 25 percent. Granted, all these polls had been taken before the September 19 release of undercover videos documenting torture and anal rape in Georgian prisons, shocking images that turned thousands of people -- many of them having nothing to do with Georgian Dream or politics whatsoever -- into the streets. But Rosner was not worried. "I don't know any scandal in the world that's wiped out a 20 point lead," he told me.

Whether it was the prison scandal, a combination of grievances, or -- as the opposition long alleged -- a widespread unpopularity not accurately accounted for in political polls due to a "climate of fear," Saakashvili's party lost the election, a development that took the international media, Western governments, and the bevy of political consultants hired by both sides by surprise. When I asked Rosner what accounted for the discrepancy between his expectations and the outcome, he repeated to me what he had said two days before: In his decades of politics, he had "never seen a single scandal wipe out a nearly 20 point lead." But while the prison video was almost certainly the decisive factor in turning the election in Ivanishvili's favor, there were other elements at play that largely eluded international observers and most Georgia-watchers.

There were many clues that the UNM would lose much of its support, if not suffer an outright defeat at the polls, one just needed to know where to look. The widely touted National Democratic Institute poll showing a 25 point UNM lead, for instance, found that a plurality of voters (43 percent) either did not know whom they would vote for or refused to answer. In retrospect, this relatively high number ought to have been seen as a boon for the opposition, as undecided voters everywhere tend to be. But much of the other evidence of voter discontent was anecdotal. Spending a Saturday afternoon with some Ivanishvili supporters in Tbilisi, I was told by one that, of her 600 Facebook friends, only two "dared" to post anything in favor of Saakashvili. The seemingly over-confident claims of impending victory from opposition supporters were also somewhat deflated, for me at least, by their wild predictions that the government would use fraud and, failing that, violence, to resist an Ivanishvili victory, all somehow under the watchful eyes of thousands of international election observers, media and Western governments. This excitable and, at times conspiratorial, tone, led me to discount much of what opposition activists were saying.

For their part, government supporters acknowledged that Tbilisi has long been an opposition stronghold. They told journalists to discount the large crowd (estimated as anywhere from 60,000 to an improbable ten times that) that turned up in the city's central Freedom Square for an Ivanishvili rally on the Saturday before the election. But a trip outside the capital demonstrated that the discontent with the government, if not Saakashvili himself, was deep, particularly among the country's poor and long-term unemployed. Though Saakashvili can claim tremendous success in reforming a post-Soviet backwater into a nation with real (albeit, long-term) prospects of joining the European Union, poverty and unemployment have remained consistent problems over his 9 years in power.

A visit to Georgia's rural areas the day before the election indicated that the election would be closer than the government's sanguine predictions. I began my day visiting the village of Metekhi, a dusty, depressed industrial town in the central Kaspi region. When I talked to the villagers -- nearly all of the working age unemployed and those too old to work living on measly pensions of 110 Lari (about $50) per month -- none of them mentioned the prison videos as a reason for their displeasure with the government. Elguja Gejadze, a 55 year-old man who said he had two university degrees, told me that he had been unemployed for four years "Everyone who supported this government is an enemy of Georgia. Everyone is guilty," he declared, echoing the virulent rhetoric of Ivanishvili, who took to painting Saakashvili and his colleagues as criminals. "This is what I think and the majority thinks but because of fear they don't speak it loudly." (Metekhi, some 10 miles from Josef Stalin's birthplace of Gori, also has the dubious honor of being home to a woman claiming to be the mother of Russian President Vladimir Putin. When a local man brought me to her house, surrounded by a wire fence, she emerged but refused to talk to me, nervously picking the shrubbery while saying that unnamed persons had warned her not to speak with the press.)

Other Georgians I spoke to felt that Saakashvili had indeed done much to change the country, but only on the surface. "He spends so much money but nothing goes to us," a despondent, 49-year-old Irakli Mamasakhlisi said, citing an alleged half-million-dollar New Year's tree from China as but one example of Saakashvili's excess. "Normal people, we don't feel the wealth ourselves." Saakashvili's building spree -- like Tbilisi's Public Service Hall, which opened just a week before the election and guarantees Georgians access to necessary government documents with fast-food efficiency (it even boasts a drive-thru window) -- failed to impress many rural voters. Denigrating that building, which looks like a martian spaceship hovering over the Mtkvari River, 75-year-old Kako Chiavireli in the village of Gurjaani complained to me about, "facades of buildings but nothing inside. We need something more than painted houses."

If my interviews outside the capital were any guide, support for the government closely tracked one criterion: whether people had jobs or not. This observation was richly illustrated for me in a heated argument I witnessed between three heavily made-up women who co-owned a convenience store and one of their customers. "We love the policies the government is implementing," Mtvarisa Mekoshkishvili told me when I asked her why she had put signs for the UNM in her shop windows. She ticked off roads, pension increases, and "improved buildings" as examples of Saakashvili's success. "The opposition says the election will be falsified and it will be stolen and nothing will change it," chimed in Shorena Surmanidze, one of her colleagues. "It looks like they want the election to be falsified and people to come out in the streets. It will be profitable to them."

The argument began when one of the store's customers overheard what they saying. Soon, the four women were bickering over whether or not it was the government's fault that unemployment remained so stubbornly high, with the shop owners claiming, like the archetypical American immigrant supporter of the Republican Party, that "if someone wants to find work, they can." The customer, in turn, replied that the only work available to her was manual labor, which she was unable to do.

Ironically, part of the reason why these factors likely eluded Western consultants, journalists, and NGO types (both those inclined to support Saakashvili and those who wanted to see him lose) is that they focused so heavily on the salacious prison video scandal at the expense of these deeper trends. A cool assessment suggests that the impact of the prison videos was somewhat overblown. Most of the documented abuse took place over a year ago, yet the videos were released less than two weeks before the election and on an opposition television station owned by Ivanishvili's wife. Of course, this doesn't in any way excuse the abysmal conditions in Georgian prisons. But it does lend credence to suspicions that some of the abuse might have been staged, suspicions later validated by a Lithuanian forensic expert invited by the Georgian government to examine the prisoners. A few days before the election, he told the BBC that he saw no evidence of forcible sodomy. This skepticism toward the video and its origins seemed to characterize the attitude of those who continued to support the government, like George Abuladze, a 26-year-old bank worker, who told me that "this kind of violence happens in most countries and prisons, but I've never seen it broadcast on foreign television."

Regardless, Saakashvili immediately took responsibility for what was depicted in the videos, denounced the apparent abuse, and fired two ministers. He then appointed the country's human rights ombudsman, a fierce critic of the government's prisons policies and acknowledged by even Saakashvili's critics as an independent man, to be the country's new penitentiary minister. In light of the fact that abuses happen in all prisons (particularly former Soviet ones), and that the responsible ministers were given their marching orders, it's unclear what more the government should have done in response to this scandal.

The government seemed to bank its hopes of winning the election on its swift and uncompromising response, acknowledging that some swing voters would defect to the opposition, but not nearly enough to overcome a 25 percent deficit. Raphael Glucksmann, a senior Saakashvili advisor, broke down the Georgian electorate for me over drinks shortly before the vote. 25 percent of the country, he said, "thinks Misha ruined their lives" and will vote for the opposition regardless of who leads it. Meanwhile, 40 percent is "hardcore Misha." That is precisely the percent of Georgians who ended up voting for the UNM, meaning that Ivanishvili was able to persuade roughly the remaining 35 percent that the country was in need of change.

Ivanishvili's confrontational rhetoric also struck the government as a sign of desperation, not confidence. Lambasting Saakashvili as a "son of a dog" and an autocrat was a sign, Glucksmann told me, that Ivanishvili was aware he had no chance of winning and was thus waging "a post-electoral strategy" that would force a showdown on the streets between an invigorated opposition that believed the election had been stolen from them and the government. "If he had accepted a moderate strategy," criticizing the government for substantive policy shortcomings rather than attacking the institutions itself, "he could have won after the prison scandal," Glucksmann said. In hindsight, it's clear that the government underestimated the level of disappointment people felt with it. Ivanishvili, with his vast fortune, was able to unite the country's disparate opposition and capitalize on that dissatisfaction.

While analysts have exaggerated the importance of the prison scandal, the video speaks to a deeper, more underlying problem that ultimately hurt the popularity of Saakshvili and his party. One of his undisputed successes is tackling petty crime and corruption, Georgia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, which is rather incredible when you factor in that it's a young, post-Soviet democracy that has experienced more than its fair share of war and civil strife. Yet in exchange for this low crime rate, the country also has one of the highest per capita prison populations in the world. This is a trade off, but one that appears to have weighed too heavily on the side of imprisonment, as the country's judicial system is widely criticized for lacking independence and too often being the plaything of prosecutors. One Georgian told me that practically everyone in this country of 4.7 million people has some connection to one of the country's 24,000 or so prisoners, or the 200,000 people on probation. This is one surefire way to create an army of angry voters.

These factors, however, escaped the notice of most of those whose jobs it was to know this small country like the back of their hand. "If the Georgian government was unable to see [discontent], so too were its friends and counterparts in the West, who were impressed by Georgian GDP growth and its high rankings on international indices," Caucasus expert Michael Cecire recently wrote in the National Interest. "And the UNM and its leadership, which had long been enthusiastic partners to the United States and Western Europe, had become a metonym to many analysts -- and especially the more casual observers -- for modernization and liberalism in a region traditionally hostile to both."

It's not hard to see why Georgia's friends in the West were blindsided by the challenge unleashed by Ivanishvili. Daniel Kunin, an American advisor to Saakashvili from the day after the 2003 Rose Revolution until January of 2010, told me that in his six and a half years at the president's side, he never once heard Ivanishvili's name mentioned. This underscores Ivanishvili's secretive nature; for a time there existed just one, blurry photo of the man on the internet, and still no one was even sure if it was of him. "We used to joke around that he could be sitting next to you on an airplane ride and you wouldn't know who it was," Kunin told me in Tbilisi the evening before the election. Now, everyone in Georgia knows the eccentric billionaire with the Albino rapper son, $1 billion art collection and private zoo, who can add one of the world's most dramatic electoral upsets to his list of accomplishments.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly quoted Jeremy Rosner as stating that the UNM’s vote share in Tbilisi was 20 percent less than that of the opposition in 2008 parliamentary elections. He actually stated that it was 20 percent below its national average.

Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Syria Will Rise Again

On my first trip to my homeland in 5 years, I saw a lot of tragedy -- and a lot of hope.

Exactly five years after I was exiled from Syria, I was able to return to my homeland because of the Syrian revolution.

I left Syria in September 2007 after being directly threatened by Syria's General Intelligence Administration (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Amma). The agency, which has branches in every Syrian province and is responsible for monitoring dissidents, tapping phone lines, and censoring media, objected to my involvement with the Damascus Declaration in 2005. The agency not only issued an arrest warrant for me, but banned my entire family from traveling outside Syria. The travel ban weighed most heavily on my sister and her five children. My sister's husband lives in Saudi Arabia, and due to the ban, her children have been unable to see their father for four years -- solely because their mother is related to a human rights activist and political opposition figure.

This September, after five long years, I was finally able to return. I entered Syria safely from Turkey through the Bab al-Salama border crossing, which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army. As I crossed through the portal, I felt so many emotions. I wept tears of joy. I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that I was returning to my homeland after being forced to leave it and that I would be able to see my family and fellow citizens in a new, free Syria.

When crossing into Syria from Turkey, I noticed that the ubiquitous pictures of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator whose family has held the destiny of Syria in its hands for 40 years, were missing. In the pictures' stead were walls covered with the words "Free Syria." But my thoughts were quickly overwhelmed with the knowledge of the shocking tragedy facing Syrians today: Millions are displaced, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country for fear of being killed by the Syrian regime's constant, indiscriminate shelling. Even then, many of those who have managed to flee Syria have not found safety. Thousands of the refugees live homeless on Turkish streets. Refugee camps on the Turkish border, already unbearably crowded with some 85,000 Syrians, have no more room for the thousands that continue to spill over the border.

It is difficult to envision Syria's future. A cry of a child is horrible enough -- it is even worse when you contemplate how Syria's children are caught in a no man's land between Turkey and Syria, with no school, no playground, and an uncertain road ahead.

And of course, Syrians will never forget those who paid the ultimate price for their country. More than 30,000 Syrians have given their lives since the revolution began, and untold thousands still languish in Assad's jails.

As we continued driving into Syria, I couldn't believe my eyes. Was I really in Syria? I wanted to see everything at once. I tried to take pictures of everything -- a vain attempt at recovering all that I had lost in the five years since I had been driven out of my home.

The trees were just as I had left them. The streets were the same as well, the sidewalks covered in dust and debris. All this, and even the passers-by -- stone-faced from a year and a half of indiscriminate killing -- seemed to symbolize a battered but resolute Syria. My country has hardened, yes, but smiles can still be found within the crowds. Assad was no longer here in this liberated Syria, and the dictator's absence was evident everywhere. His pictures were gone; his intelligence services were gone; the structure of the regime was all but destroyed. Syria remains and Assad is gone.

As we approached Azaz, a town between Aleppo and the Turkish border, I started seeing evidence of Syria's raging conflict. The burned-out hulk of an armored vehicle lay at the entrance of the city. "That was the first armored BMP that we were able to destroy," one of the Free Syrian Army fighters accompanying me explained. "We captured three regime soldiers as well."

Pretty much everyone who passes the destroyed armored vehicle takes a picture of it. As we drove on toward the city center, I counted 17 destroyed tanks. It was clear that the battle to free Azaz from the Assad regime had not been an easy one. The Free Syrian Army took photographs of the remains of the battle and hung enlarged versions on the walls of the justice department in the town. It has transformed the building into a museum commemorating the town's freedom.

The citizens of Azaz lived through six months of horror before their town was liberated. While there, I visited a mosque that had been occupied by Assad's forces and turned into a military base. A tank used to be stationed in the mosque's garden; two snipers were always stationed in the mosque's minarets, locals told me. The snipers targeted anything that moved while tanks prowled the city's streets, bombing public buildings and schools. All in all, six schools in Azaz were shelled. The city's hospital and cultural center were destroyed in airstrikes. None of the state government buildings are fit for use -- Assad's forces left nothing but destruction.

But despite all that, a love of life has helped Syrians persevere. The residents of Azaz have returned to their jobs and their shops. They have begun to establish civil society organizations to bring life once again to the city, and they have elected a council that oversees the administration of their town. The council is currently working to restore bakeries, rebuild the hospital, and dispose of garbage.

This is Free Syria -- a new country that has paid a great price for its liberty. At one point, I was asked by a shop owner, "Aren't you Radwan Ziadeh, the one from Washington, always on TV?" I answered yes, and he smiled. "Now I know that Syria is free. Exiled political opposition figures are able to return to Syria without restrictions or government permission!"

This is what I said to him: "Now I know that Syria is free, because this is the first time I can speak to you without being worried about the consequences of what I say. Thank you for making it possible for me to return to my homeland Syria after being in exile for five years."

I meant it. Returning to Syria gave me an opportunity to see a new Syria on the horizon -- a Free Syria proud of all its citizens, confident in its future, and baptized in blood.

Vedat Xhymshiti/AFP/Getty Images