Saturday, January 5, 2008

The day so far, and what we could see

Saakashvili supporters in cars festooned with Georgian flags are driving through the capital's center, horns blazing in celebration of the incumbent's putative reelection.

The day started off with some delays, scuffles and reports of election violations, but voting seems to have gone relatively smoothly overall. Preliminary reports from observation organizations are expected within the next day.

The Saakashvili campaign's declaration of victory, however, is based on a single exit poll which puts him only slightly above the 50% needed to avoid a runoff, and comes before the Central Election Commission releases any final results. A final count of the turnout is due at 11 p.m. Tbilisi time, with initial vote counts to come in after midnight and running through the night.

Opposition campaigns are roundly dismissing the results of the exit polling, saying they will wait for the official results.

There are at least two groups who did parallel vote tabulation today; the results from that count should be available tomorrow. Parallel vote tabulation is considered generally more reliable than exit polls.

While many voters seem prepared to accept a Saakashvili victory tonight, a sizable number will be very skeptical of a victory, especially one that could come down to just thousands of votes. It is also possible, however, that Saakashvili's margin of victory is actually greater than the exit poll suggests.

There may ultimately be a runoff, which would defuse tensions for two weeks until the next poll. But what we will probably see is a hotly disputed and drawn-out counting process over the next few days. By the beginning of next week, the Central Election Commission may officially verify a Saakashvili win -- but by a majority vote, with the six (out of thirteen) opposition CEC representatives potentially refusing to endorse the results.

A split like that will lead to the opposition calling for street protests. They have already tentatively scheduled rallies tomorrow to release their own count of the votes, but Tbilisi City Hall announced two days ago that a demonstration would be illegal, because the opposition did not give five days advance notice. It is unclear whether they will find a location, or be allowed, to gather over the next few days.

If protests go ahead, the situation becomes less predictable.


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