Saturday, January 19, 2008

Opposition moderates its stance, and Bryza warns Saakashvili administration

A bit of the weekend's news:

The opposition stance is shifting, with coalition leaders’ latest remarks referring to the parliamentary elections as the “second round” they had demanded after the January 5 presidential election.

It’s unclear whether everyone in the bloc is ready to move into a parliamentary election campaign; we may see the coalition breaking up in the next few weeks as each party sets its own course for the spring elections. But before that, they will try to secure more government concessions, most crucially on the Central Election Commission, to assure themselves—and their supporters—that the parliamentary elections will be fair.

The latest OSCE/ODIHR preliminary report is heavily critical of post-election voting, counting and arbitration. The opposition’s complaints are vindicated in no small measure by the report, which was pushed out earlier than initially expected probably with a mind to the parliamentary elections.

And at a press conference today, the US State Department’s top envoy in the region, Matthew Bryza, emphasized that the next elections must improve on the conduct of the January 5 election.

Bryza, as he is compelled to do every time he comes to Georgia, set the record straight on remarks he made the day after the election. His words are often grossly distorted by the Georgian news media, and on January 6 he was widely quoted (in translation) as saying the election had been “fair” and Saakashvili’s victory “convincing.”

He insisted that Washington did not judge the election fair at that time; instead, on January 6 he had spoken of Georgians’ duty to recognize the results of the election if they are deemed free and fair.

Since then, Bryza said, US teams have concluded “there was not large-scale fraud that altered the outcome of the election.” But observers found “irregularities,” he said, urging all sides to focus on making the upcoming parliamentary elections free and fair.

He also had a very strong message for the Saakashvili administration. Today, Bryza twice stated that in his January 6 comments, he had not only spoken of the duty to recognize fair elections, but had added that “if the results [of the election] were not free and fair, then Georgia would find itself in a situation that was similar to November 2003.”

A forceful way to publicly make the point that the government must fully commit, in a way many would agree it did not in January, to free and fair elections—or face blowback.

Monday, January 14, 2008

10,000 or 100,000?

Estimating crowd sizes is a thorny endeavor, particularly in a country where they like to play fast and loose with numbers.

In our report on yesterday's rally, we pegged the number of protesters at "more than 10,000."

I stand by that estimate (I think 15,000 demonstrators was the maximum), arrived at through loose heuristics like average crowd density figures and calculating the area of Freedom Square. But there was considerable debate in our office about the turnout, and some readers have called to ask about or challenge the number.

Opposition leaders claimed 100,000, and rumors circulated that a satellite imaging company added up more than twice that. International media, meanwhile, tended to report the only quotable estimates they had -- local police, the usual source for turnout estimates, had nothing to say, meaning the opposition's rhetorical figures are all that get into print.

There aren't really any reliable methods available to us, besides eyeballing it and doing some rough calculations. But as one now-departed wag put it, the November demonstrations have suddenly turned us all into experts on estimating crowd size.

So how many people do you think were at the January 13 protest?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

More than 10,000 at Tbilisi protest

Right now, more than 10,000 demonstrators are calling for a runoff in election. The crowd is dismissing the the final election results, officially released today, as blatant fraud. There were some banners criticizing Washington and Matthew Bryza as promoting "anti-democracy" in Georgia.

Opposition leaders say they won't back down, but it's difficult to see how they could be successful. The CEC and the courts have rejected most of their complaints, and the government can hardly order a runoff in an election they call valid.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Trouble ahead for the January 13 rally?

CORRECTION: Chalk this one up to poor translations and this week's rampant confusion: the City Hall statement warns against creating "obstacles for municipal transport." It also bans demonstrations within 20 meters of government facilities.

On January 13, the opposition coalition plan to march their supporters from one end of Rustaveli Avenue to the other.

Today, Tbilisi City Hall said they have a permit to do that -- as long as they don't block traffic. A vice-mayor told one of our journalists that the law forbids rallies to block traffic, then hung up the phone.

That's an odd thing to say; the point of applying for a rally permit is to allow the demonstrators to block traffic. City Hall is saying thousands of protesters will have to squeeze onto the sidewalk for their rally.

Kukava of the opposition coalition says they have no intention to abide by that rule, and indeed it's difficult to see how they could. A police crackdown on January 13 demonstrators is almost unimaginable, but City Hall's statements only seem to be inviting trouble.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Imedi returning?

The opposition claim Georgian television is not giving them due attention, and the return of Imedi to the air could shift the balance of election coverage. So far, the little-read Georgian newspapers have devoted much more coverage to allegations of election fraud than the television stations.

Imedi TV suspended broadcasts on December 27 after authorities released a tape of station founder Badri Patarkatsishvili allegedly plotting a coup attempt.

There is no official word on when they may resume broadcasts, but an Imedi journalist suggested an announcement could come tomorrow evening.

Opposition not ready to move on

Last night, I spoke too soon. The opposition is dramatically readying itself for a hunger strike in front of the public broadcaster, while simultaneously presenting evidence of election wrong-doing as they seek to legally annul some of Saturday's results.

(Hunger strikes, incidentally, are common affairs in Georgia; results, or people actually starving from lack of results, are less so.)

Voters, on the other hand, may be more ready to move on than the opposition.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Opposition ready to move on?

From speaking with opposition coalition representative Kakha Kukava, I get the impression they are seriously rethinking their earlier vow of continuous street protests.

They seem to have been in deliberations most of the day, considering how to move forward from here. Tomorrow, they'll meet with the CEC and international observers to register their complaints before making an announcement on their next rally.

It may be premature to call it, but I suspect they'll denounce the presidential election and then move on into a campaign for the parliamentary elections. There doesn't seem to be enough people willing to stand in the snow to give them clout in a standoff with the government -- but they could pick up plenty of seats in parliament if they play their hand right.

Making the referendum politically binding

I'm a few hours behind on this, but here's Solana's statement:

Javier SOLANA, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy

(CFSP) made the following statement following the presidential elections which took place in Georgia on 5 January 2008:

"I should like to congratulate the Georgian people on the peaceful conduct of truly

competitive presidential elections on 5 January.

As a matter of priority, the vote count should be concluded as soon as possible, and all allegations of irregularities should be properly investigated.

All political forces should maintain a dialogue in order to deal with the challenges ahead, including those identified by international observers, before the parliamentary elections in the spring.

The European Union is ready to assist Georgia in moving forward towards the next elections".

Kristeshobas gilotsav

There won't be much action on Christmas, so time to call it another night at the Messenger. Once again, thanks for reading.

Incidentally, please ignore the regrettably outdated headline on our cover tomorrow morning.

Opposition: we are contesting 100,000 votes

Just spoke with Republican leader and ex-GYLA head Tina Khidasheli, now of the opposition coalition.

She said they aren't surprised at all, as they expected the figures to be manipulated upwards to the exit poll and GQR results.

Opposition has filed hundreds of complaints; Khidasheli says it's illegitimate to announce results this early without looking through them, also claims issues with receiving complete protocols.

She said they are challenging 100,000 votes, enough to push Saakashvili back below 50 percent if their challenge is upheld.

But it almost certainly won't be -- it takes nine votes out of 13, she said, for the CEC to uphold a complaint.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

CEC splits as Saakashvili win confirmed

The CEC chief said they had early results in from 3400 precincts, altogether enough to put Saakashvili about 3 points over 50.

In the middle of the briefing, the opposition representatives on the CEC burst into the room, shouting at the CEC chair and denouncing the results as lies.

Looking now into whether this is ironclad by law, and whether reported violations (the ballot stuffing in Telavi, lost ballots in a car crash, the apparent mess OSCE saw in Samtskhe-Javakheti) could lead to annulments, and whether those could in turn affect the end result.

Georgian TV is helpfully airing a live Christmas service.

Saakashvili drops below 50%

819 precincts in out of 3500+, Saakashvili at 48.55%. There is still a long way to go in this count.

Going through the OSCE preliminary report

The OSCE election observation mission’s preliminary conclusion includes the crucial line: “While the 5 January 2008 extraordinary presidential election in Georgia was in essence consistent with most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections, significant challenges were revealed which need to be addressed urgently.”

But with the praise for Georgia’s “first genuinely competitive presidential election” and a transparent Central Election Commission came criticisms of the campaign season (polarized and characterized by deep mistrust), the courts (favored the ruling party without sound legal justification), the broadcast media (unbalanced in Saakashvili’s favor) and CEC members (partisan and without adjudication skills).

The OSCE’s early report on the vote and the count raises concerns: a “significant number” of observers called the precinct counts “bad or very bad.” What does that mean for the outcome of the count itself? Rep. Alcee Hastings, the Florida congressman leading the observation mission, stressed in his briefing today that they did not expect the violations to affect the actual result of the election.

Those violations included: voters not being inked or not checked for ink (a safeguard against multiple voting), and in a dozen cases voters who were inked being allowed to vote; unauthorized people, mostly police, in some stations; a “considerable number” of precinct commissions not doing simple checks on their count, like writing down the total number of voters first; observers and precinct commission members being unlawfully forbidden to examine ballots; and unauthorized people “frequently” participating in the vote count.

In Samtskhe-Javakheti (which is poor, predominantly ethnic Armenian, and went overwhelmingly for Saakashvili), the OSCE deemed voting bad or very bad in 24% of the polling places they visited.

While the OSCE representatives naturally declined to talk about the results of the count (still in progress) other than stating that the violations observed shouldn’t affect the outcome, the problems they documented could be used by opposition campaigns to file for recounts.

Recounts in Georgia, according to a New Generation-New Initiative lawyer, can only be done on a precinct-by-precinct basis, and only after the CEC agrees there was a problem with the voting. The NGNI lawyer said recounts probably won’t be the fallback option for the opposition, though if Saakashvili’s total count strays close to the 50% mark, a systematic push for recounts might be an option they’ll take.

Saakashvili at 53% as counting continues

As expected, Saakashvili's margin of victory continues to shrink as more counts come in.

Most of the districts we're waiting on are expected to continue the trend, generally supporting Saakashvili with between 40-50%. However, only a bit more than a tenth of precinct results are in, and predicting district preferences is more guesswork than science given the current data.

Natelashvili, Gachechiladze: 'I won'

Only Gia Maisashvili (at 0.67% of the vote so far) concedes defeat, but accuses Saakashvili of rigging the election.

Gachechiladze claims he wons; Shalva Natelashvili says he should face Saakashvili in a second round.

Davit Gamkrelidze of the New Rights says he will not join the opposition coalition's rallies, but congratulated their candidate, Gachechiladze, on advancing to a second round against Saakashvili.

Thanks to a commenter for catching an earlier inaccuracy; Gamkrelidze's statement was initially misinterpreted.

'No steps back' as Rike rally ends

Rustavi 2 is playing footage of opposition coalition member Gia Tortladze at the rally vowing 'no steps back.'

Levan Gachechiadze has won, his backing coalition announced. Organizers then called an end to the rally, pending the official CEC results.

Conflicting reports out of Rike rally

One foreign journalist at the rally estimated turnout topped off at 10,000 before organizers called an end.

Opposition member Koba Davitashvili, however, claimed 100,000 supporters and our photographer says the rally is continuing.

We'll clarify asap -- Georgian television stations are airing the OSCE press conference, not the rally.

OSCE: election meets commitments

OSCE observation mission briefing now underway:

- In essence, the election meets OSCE and international commitments.

- But significant challenges revealed, which need to be addressed urgently.

- Georgian people were able to freely express themselves at ballot box

- Call on all parties to ensure this peaceful atmosphere continues in the coming days and weeks.

The evaluation is as expected: the election in essence met international commitments, but with a few wrinkles to be ironed out and concerns about domestic political fallout from the results.

Strong turnout at Rike rally

Reportedly thousands, with more arriving.

We don't have a journalist on the spot, but our photographer excitedly reports that the "whole opposition is [there] and people are still coming."

IRI's initial statement

International Republican Institute says the elections went fairly well, observing only "relatively small violations," none of which "seemed to affect the outcome of the election."

In their preliminary statement, an IRI representative mentioned "a few" reports of unidentified men in polling stations requesting the names and IDs of voters; he did not go into detail on the other violations observed.

PVT shows Saakashvili win

New Generation-New Initiative's parallel vote tabulation gave Mikheil Saakashvili 50.5% of the vote in yesterday's presidential election.

By a back of the envelope calculation, this means Saakashvili could be winning his majority by around 9000 votes.

State Department happy with election

The US State Department's Matthew Bryza told Georgian media that Saakashvili seems to have won a "fair" and "convincing" victory, according to their translation of his words.

The New Generation-New Initiative parallel vote tabulation results are expected to be announced at 2 p.m.

No opposition unity for rally

Labor won't be joining the nine-party opposition coalition in any election rallies: a party representative said they were the true winners of the election, and certainly won't rally to "protect [Gachechiladze's] votes."

New Rights member Manana Nachkebia said, with just over an hour before the rally's planned start time, that her party hadn't decided whether to participate.

A massive turnout at Rike would be surprising.

Saakashvili strongholds, and observer announcements today

With 229 precincts in, Saakashvili is at 57.58%.

Much of that commanding lead is thanks to just three places: Akhaltsikhe, Marneuli (both dominated by ethnic minorities) and Zugdidi (bordering breakaway Abkhazia).

ISFED's parallel vote tabulation, meanwhile, doesn't answer much: they have Saakashvili clearing the 50% threshold by less than a percentage point, within the 2% margin of error.

The results of a second PVT count, from New Generation-New Initiative, are expected today, perhaps within the next few hours.

And at 3 p.m., the OSCE will release a statement on their monitoring results.

No hints yet of how many will rally at Rike.

CEC showing 55 precinct results

The CEC now has results in English, meaning we can take a short break and let the hardworking CEC technicians keep you up to speed on the night's first real numbers. Saakashvili continues to lead with 68%, but you can look forward to the suspense of seeing that number inch toward 50% as the count wears on.

We'll return tomorrow with reports of the Rike rally and a roundup of the vote count.

Thanks for reading; have a good night.

What happened with NATO?

An interesting result being mostly overlooked is the unexpectedly large "no" vote on a plebiscite asking Georgians if they want to join NATO.

According to the most credible exit poll tonight, 61% voted for NATO membership, 17.7% against and 21.3% refused to reveal their vote.

17.7%, while still low, far outstrips what most observers judge the genuine anti-NATO sentiment in Georgia to be. I suspect the high percentage against came as part of the anti-Saakashvili protest votes we expected to see today.

Gutbrod agrees, explaining perhaps with greater accuracy that the vote was for "more nuance and a more balanced rhetoric" regarding NATO accession.

And, as expected, the exit poll showed a strong majority of voters (64%) asking for parliamentary elections in spring. The vote is not legally binding, though there are ruling party suggestions of passing a constitutional amendment to make the plebiscites legally and retroactively binding -- a clear suggestion of political commitment to the results, even if the government does not follow through with an actual amendment.

Opposition claim widespread fraud

An hour ago, three leading members of the nine-party opposition coalition convened an "emergency briefing" on the election results, predicting the count will be rigged to avoid the runoff they say should happen.

Little international media were present, but three leading Georgian networks had the cameras rolling.

There was widespread evidence of vote fraud, ex-foreign minister Salome Zourabichvili claimed, ticking off instances of ill-timed electricity outages and misbehavior from officials. She had no evidence on hand to offer.

Nor did Tina Khidashvili, of the Republicans, have any documents beyond sheets of paper with penciled numbers to back up their assertion, based on parallel vote tabulations, that coalition candidate Levan Gachechiladze swept Tbilisi precincts.

Early CEC results, however, do suggest a stronger showing for Gachechiladze in Tbilisi than the rest of the country, including wins over Saakashvili in precincts within Didube and Vake districts.

The opposition representatives said that the rally at Rike this afternoon would not be a protest, but a celebration of winning a runoff -- and that any CEC results in the morning contradicting that means the election was rigged.

Khidasheli said the precinct results have been too slow in coming in, more evidence of fraud. While long delays in publishing results generally implies an increased risk of fraud, a look back at the 2006 and 2004 elections suggest the CEC is not unusually slow this weekend.

The first vote counts for the 2006 local elections were released the evening after the election; in the 2004 parliamentary elections, preliminary nationwide results came the morning after the election.

Coalition representative Kakha Kukava says they need no permission to rally at Rike tomorrow. (Georgian law requires advance notice only for demonstrations which will block traffic.) Reports that Saakashvili's National Movement had reserved Rike for their own Sunday rally are unconfirmed. Kukava, asked to guess at turnout tomorrow, said 200 000 people would come if the Georgian media had disseminated their announcement. Not many people would know about the rally, he predicted, clearly hedging on turnout strength.

My early morning taxi driver, however, knew the time and place of the Rike rally. He said he would be there by all means.

First counts are in

The Central Election Commission has released initial results for 39 precincts.

It's in Georgian only so far, but the graphic is clear. Saakashvili is at 69% to Gachechiladze 17%.

It will be hours before any substantial results are available, but you can see an interesting breakdown by precinct. In Tbilisi's upscale Vake, for example, Gachechiladze won an outright majority in the sole precinct to report so far.

Edit: Thanks to Cory W for catching my mistake; there are still more precincts in Vake district to come in.

CEC: We have 100 precincts in

Levan Tarkhnishvili, Central Election Commission chair, reports that the election was free and democratic with only some minor violations.

They have received, via fax, the results from just 100 precincts out of approximately 3500 as of 2:30 a.m. this morning.

Those results should be going up on their website from 3 a.m. until 9 a.m., when the CEC hopes to be able to announce initial official results.

Turnout was around 56%, far lower than expected.

Opposition coalition member Kakha Kukava was in the room to aggressively challenge the CEC chief, asking for photocopies of the faxes that have come in so far. It got a little heated as Tarkhnishvili reminded Kukava the press briefing was not the place for political statements, and told him to request the copies in writing.

Tarkhnishvili said that they were absolutely not behind schedule in counting the ballots. Patrick Worms, a communications adviser to the justice minister temporarily on loan to the CEC, chalked the lag up to the necessity and complexity of the hand count, the shortage of fax machines, unreliable electricity and disputes between partisan election commissioners among other reasons.

The CEC also had a Lithuanian MP on hand to give his seal of approval to the process, saying he saw a free election and "normal relations" between party representatives at the polling stations. (That is in sharp conflict with one observer at a Tbilisi precinct, who witnessed shouting matches and high tensions.)

The opposition coalition is releasing the results of their parallel vote tabulation, for Tbilisi only, in twenty minutes. Kukava denied it would be irresponsible to release that count alone, and said they hope to have a count from most of the country by the time they rally at Rike tomorrow.

CEC releasing numbers

The CEC is about to hold a briefing, though it's not clear whether they will release final turnout numbers or preliminary vote counts.

Saakashvili: we've earned our victory

Saakashvili, in a short speech to supporters at his campaign headquarters, spoke broadly about the success of his campaign but stopped short of declaring an outright victory.

He congratulated his campaigners for securing victory in the exit poll, and praised the election as the most democratic and most contested in Georgia's history. Saakashvili also pledged to reach out in cooperation with all Georgian patriots. (He has previously accused opposition members of being anything but that.)

The CEC says they will be releasing their first results at 2 a.m.

Another look at the exit poll

Hans Gutbrod, a seasoned hand when it comes to Georgian elections, posted some very helpful comments regarding the Rustavi2/GFSIS/et al exit poll which shows Saakashvili grabbing a narrow victory tonight:

"I think the exit poll consortium would have done themselves (and the public) a favour by representing that data out of 100, i.e. show the non-response rate embedded. The truth is, nobody knows how these 28% voted, and it would be good if the public then could make up their own mind about what they think the 28% did.

[...] And to offer this [calculation of data out of 100] to everyone, rounded to the full figure since the margin of error is too high to speculate on what's behind a comma:

Gachechiladze 20
Patarkatsishvili 4
Gamkrelide 3
Natelashvili 4
Saakashvili 39
Maisashvili 1
Saarishvili 0
Non-response 28

Now everybody can make up their own mind about what they think non-response means."

Opposition to rally tomorrow

Opposition coalition candidate Levan Gachechiladze, the likely second-place finisher, is calling on supporters to rally at 2 p.m. tomorrow in Rike, a central Tbilisi neighborhood, to "protect our votes." So far, only fellow opposition candidate Gia Maisashvili has confirmed he will join the rally.

Slight delay in getting this post out; the Messenger has shifted its base of operations to the Central Election Commission, where they are running behind schedule on preliminary count announcements.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Updated exit polls

The Georgian exit polling group, composed of reputable organizations but so far proving hasty, released updated results putting Saakashvili up to a 53.8% projected win.

Here's the rest:
Gachechiladze: 28.3%
Patarkatsishvili: 6.2%
Gamkrelidze: 3.6%
Natelashvili: 5.6%
Saakashvili: 53.8%
Maisashvili: 0.9%
Sarishvili: 0.4%
All projected with a 27.9% nonresponse rate.

We also have the first exit poll results for the two plebiscites on the ballot:
NATO membership: 61% for, 17.7% against, 21.3% no answer
Parliamentary election in spring: 63.6% for, 15% against, 20.5% no answer

They seem to have included the nonresponse rate as part of the total, rather than projecting the way those respondents would break as they did with the candidates' results.

The very first parallel vote tabulation results have also come out, but only for 12 of 150 precincts in Zugdidi, the last large town on the way to secessionist Abkhazia. The results are not significant in a national sense yet, but the pace they are being counted up tells us we should have full numbers tomorrow.

New Generation-New Initiative's PVT in 12 of 150 Zugidi precincts:

Gachechiladze: 11.4%
Patarkatsishvili: 3.72%
Gamkrelidze: 3.55%
Natelashvili: 2.9%
Saakashvili: 71.58%
Maisashvili: 0.5%
Sarishvili: 0.11%

And my apologies, just realized none of your comments have been getting through. They're on the blog now, and I'll be answering questions as I can. Please keep 'em coming.

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.

Public perception

A quick, informal survey of random Tbilisi residents suggest most voters believe Saakashvili has won the race, based on the early exit poll results.

If you're coming to this blog from an outside link and want more background, you can find news stories and candidate profiles at the Messenger's main website.

Zourabichvili: Saakashvili victory celebration a 'provocation'

Salome Zourabichvili, an opposition coalition leader, just gave a press briefing.

She doesn't know why Saakashvili's campaign is celebrating a victory, she said, when other exit polls show Gachechiladze, their candidate, ahead. She says they will wait until the real results, then celebrate their own victory.

The Saakashvili campaign's claim of victory is a "provocation," Zourabichvili said.

No word on plans for a protest, but the coalition has previously said they plan to rally tomorrow to announce their count of the votes.

Scores of complaints filed with CEC

The Georgian Young Lawyers' Association alone has filed 95 complaints of election irregularities with the Central Election Commission; a CEC spokesperson said the majority of the complaints have not been verified.

CEC chair Levan Tarkhnishvili promises results from all precincts by 3 a.m.

Outside the country, at least 400 Georgians voted in Moscow, and more than 230 in Paris.

Expert says 'wait'

Archil Gegeshidze, a political expert at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, told the Messenger that a “convincing picture” has not yet been produced by the preliminary results of two exit polls.

He said little can be ascertained from the results presented so far.

Why the exit polling is questionable

The 52.5% given to Saakashvili in the Rustavi 2-commissioned exit poll, with a 2% margin of error, is above the 50% threshold by a razor-thin margin -- and, as explained in an earlier post, exit polls will diverge a little from official results at even the best of times.

But more than that, the 52.5% figure includes the group's best guesses as to how the people who refused to respond -- 23% of the total surveyed -- cast their ballot. That is something which leaves considerable room for error in either direction.

Yet an Estonian MP went in front of cameras to declare that the election has gone smoothly, and he's confident in a Saakashvili victory. His words should be viewed skeptically -- the race is more open than they pretend.

Opposition dismiss exit polling

Davit Usupashvili, a member of the nine-party opposition coalition, says tonight's exit polling is "unreliable." He says they will wait on the preliminary results from the CEC.

A member of the Labor Party, which is not in the coalition, said they don't believe the exit polling, because Labor candidate Shalva Natelashvili should in actuality be in first.

Clearly, different campaigns will take exception to the exit polls for different reasons -- but we could see them all on the same street for a rally tomorrow.

Saakashvili campaign declares victory

Saakashvili campaign spokesman Davit Bakradze, based on exit polling, congratulated the Georgian people on reelecting Mikheil Saakashvili for another five-year term.

Saakashvili campaign HQ celebrates

Mikheil Saakashvili's campaign headquarters in Tbilisi is brimming with revelers proclaiming a victory for Saakashvili tonight. No official results have been released yet, but one exit poll shows Saakashvili eeking out a majority win.

Exit poll projects Saakashvili win

The group of four local organizations, commissioned by Rustavi 2 and other TV networks, have released preliminary exit poll results:

See our earlier post for why this could be a problem.

Misha Saakashvili: 52.5%
Levan Gachechiladze: 28.5%
Badri Patarkatsishvili: 6%
Shalva Natelashvili: 5.5%
Davit Gamkrelidze: 3.6%
Gia Maisashvili: 0.8%
Irina Sarishvili: 0.4%

Margin of error is 2%, and the non-response rate was 23%.

The non-response rate could be a disputed factor; Gutbrod of CRRC suggests Saakashvili's campaign may be premature in declaring a victory tonight.

The Imedi factor

Imedi TV staff decided to suspend broadcasts in late December, after the government released a tape of station founder Badri Patarkatsishvili allegedly detailing a violent coup plot.

Authorities blame Imedi TV for inciting anti-government violence on November 7, raiding and ransacking the leading television network that day.

Imedi Radio, however, is up and running -- and they're reporting unverified exit polling results which put opposition coalition candidate Levan Gachechiladze ahead of Saakashvili. The Ukrainian group which carried out this poll was supposedly hired by the Imedi Media group, though speculation remains as to who is ultimately behind it. Calls to Ukrainian journalists turned up no credible background for the group.

It's more than an hour before a more reputable exit poll will reveal its results; this discrepancy in counts is exactly what observers fear could spark mass protests from voters who perceive government vote fraud.

There is already a significant block of voters expecting fraud. A poll commissioned by the Saakashvili campaign found that, in early December, a full 30 percent of voters were convinced the election would be neither free nor fair. How ready they are to mobilize in protest, and whether more moderately-minded bulk of voters will perceive this election as rigged, is the question of the night.

While the pro-government Georgian TV networks conspicuously have no reports at all on these exit polls, Imedi Radio ensures that people will swiftly hear about the results.

Representatives of the oppositional New Rights, which are not part of the nine-party opposition coalition, say they are skeptical about the exit polls.

It's still unclear whether the opposition coalition behind Gachechiladze will run with the exit poll results; look for an update soon.

Ukrainian group releases exit poll results

A Ukrainian group with no clear history and uncertain sponsorship has released the evening's first exit polls, showing Saakashvili at just 24 percent. No major Georgian television stations aired their briefing.

Update: Imedi Radio is covering the Ukrainian exit poll, and a third exit poll done by a Polish group.

The results:
Levan Gachechiladze, opposition coaliition: 31%
Mikheil Saakashvili, incumbent: 24.4%
Badri Patarkatsishvili: 20.3%
Shalva Natelashvili: 12.4%
Davit Gamkrelidze: 7.3%
Gia Maisashvili: 0.6%
Irina Sarishvili: 0.1%
"Again everyone": 2.8%
"Refused to answer": 1.1%

Representatives of the group refused to provide verifiable information about their history. There is no reason to accept these results as credible; it remains to be seen if opposition candidates will cite them.

Polls close

The precincts shut down at 8:15.

The CEC will release its first results, district by district, within a few hours. A provisional country-wide count will be released at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning, with official final results coming in four days.

We want to hear from you

We welcome your questions or comments.

Update: CEC puts turnout at 46 percent by 5 p.m.

At 5 p.m. today, three hours before polls are scheduled to close, countrywide turnout was 46.44 percent, according to the Central Election Commission.

While the CEC has spoken about a strong turnout throughout the day, the number has so far fallen short of expectations.

Turnout could be depressed from the uncertainty and controversy surrounding today's election, which was prefaced by allegations of coup plots and official malfeasance.

Detailed turnout data for Tbilisi, which is slightly below the national average, follows.
Tbilisi- 42
Tbilisi districts:
Mtatsminda- 45.05
Vake- 48.66
Saburtalo- 45.80
Krtsanisi- 45.46
Isani- 41.51
Samgori 30.06
Chugureti- 44.39
Didube- 32.11
Nadzaladevi- 43.39
Gldani- 43.39

National turnout percentages by district:
Sagarejo- 48.01
Gurjaani- 50.84
Signaghi- 56.30
Dedoplistskharo- 44.80
Lagodekhi- 48.91
Qvareli- 53.96
Telavi- 46.26
Akhmeta- 44.12
Tianeti- 43.16
Rustavi- 40.63
Gardabani- 42.03
Marneuli- 50.81
Bolnisi- 56.51
Dmanisi- 46.04
Tsalka- 30.56
Tetristskharo- 41.55
Kaspi- 47.85
Akhalgori- 53.30
Gori- 51.96
Kareli- 53.87
Khashuri- 57.20
Borjomi- 53.73
Akhaltsikhe- 62.18
Adigeni- 62.02
Aspindza- 59.76
Akhalkalaki- 66.36
Ninotsminda- 59.49
Oni- 49.49
Ambrolauri- 76.89
Tsageri- 59.92
Lentekhi- 43.67
Mestia- 52.59
Kharagauli- 55.51
Terjola- 52.49
Sachkhere- 48.23
Zestaponi- 46.28
Baghdati- 46.35
Vani- 49.19
Samtredia- 47.26
Khoni- 53.41
Chiatura- 43.46
Tqibuli- 50.19
Tskhaltubo- 49.05
Kutaisi- 36.45
Ozurgeti- 48.25
Lanchkhuti- 50.79
Chokhatauri- 61.51
Abasha- 53.70
Senaki- 63.36
Martvili- 54.90
Khobi- 53.75
Zugdidi- 39.18
Tsalenjikha- 39.34
Chkhorotskhu- 53.10
Poti- 42.59
Batumi- 43.14
Keda- 56.93
Kobuleti- 48.12
Shuakhevi- 52.67
Khelvachauri- 45.70
Khulo- 49.01
Mtskheta- 53.81
Dusheti- 43.73
Qazbegi- 30.72

Justice Minister claims Labor Party refused state protection

Following claims of a plot on Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili’s life, Justice Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili said the party have refused the government’s offer of state protection.

She also claimed that Goga Khaindrava, a member of the nine-party opposition coalition, has physically assaulted a woman who was supporting Mikheil Saakashvili at a polling station in Didube, Tbilisi.

Exit polls could 'undermine trust in election'

In under an hour, the first of two separate groups running exit polls will release their results.

The first exit poll results will come from a Ukrainian group of uncertain provenance; the second, at 10 p.m. Tbilisi time, from a group of four reputable NGOs and public institutes in Georgia.

Opposition candidates have urged the international community to preemptively declare the exit polling unacceptable. The group of local organizations was commissioned by the country’s leading television networks (except pro-opposition Imedi TV, which has suspended its broadcasting), all of which have been accused of a pro-government bias; opposition campaigners allege the government indirectly commissioned the exit poll, and will manipulate the results to justify a Saakashvili win.

There is no direct evidence that the exit polling will be manipulated, but even the best-intentioned exit polls could be “a potential source of conflict,” according to CRRC’s Hans Gutbrod, who has observed five elections in Georgia.

“Exit polls are reasonable tools, but end up often deviating from the actual results,” Gutbrod says. He pointed to exit polls in America’s 2000 presidential election, which incorrectly called the race for George W. Bush in Florida. And in 2004, exit polls showed John Kerry winning in Ohio, but he ultimately lost the race there to Bush.

“One reason the exit poll could be off,” Gutbrod explains, “is because voters who exit the polling station may have reasons not to be entirely candid about who they’re voting for, particularly in this type of context [where there is alleged pressure on some voters to support Saakashvili].”

In 1992, for example, exit polls showed John Major losing in Britain’s elections; it turned out it was less socially acceptable to say you voted for the Conservatives.

There are also methodological challenges in conducting exit polls in Georgia, he adds, where no one has much practice in holding (or judging) democratic elections.

The exit polling we see tonight is as likely to cloud the situation as give a clear indication of the result. Recent polling released by Saakashvili’s campaign predicts 52 percent of the vote for him today, making it entirely possible that exit polls and the official results could each show Saakashvili on opposite sides of the 50 percent he needs to avoid a runoff.

On top of that, there are two separate exit polls being run today, both by groups which have had their credibility questioned.

Gutbrod says it’s fairly likely the two exit polls won’t be in close agreement, and politicians will naturally grab onto whatever numbers favor them, regardless of the veracity of the result.

“Either way, the exit polls were going to be politicized,” he concludes. “[They] can actually undermine trust in the election, rather than confirm—even if the election has been going perfectly well.”

Bakradze praises Gali voters

Davit Bakradze, spokesman for the Saakashvili campaign and state minister for conflict resolution, said there are “no uncomfortable situations” in any voting districts.

He called on opposition groups not to “waste time” with allegations of election violations and warned against staging provocations.

Bakradze also praised ethnic Georgians residing in Gali district, in the Abkhaz conflict zone, who crossed the administrative border to cast their votes, and thanked them for risking their families’ lives in order to participate in the election.

CEC denies most alleged voting violations

Opposition campaigners, including highly marginal candidate Irina Sarishvili, are accusing the ruling party of staging "merry-go-round" voting -- taking their supporters to multiple polling stations to vote repeatedly.

The ruling party is denying the charges, and the Central Election Commission say they could not confirm most of the opposition's claims today. According to the CEC, there have been only minor problems.

The CEC has confirmed the ballot stuffing in Telavi, problems with the marking ink used to prevent multiple voting, and heated arguments at polling stations in at least two Tbilisi precincts.

Gali residents reportedly face difficulty reaching polling stations

It is being reported that registered Georgian voters residing in Gali district, in the Abkhaz conflict zone, are facing difficulty reaching their closest polling stations, in Georgian-controlled territory, south of the Enguri River which runs along the administrative border of the breakaway republic.

A representative of the Zugdidi Election Commission, close to the administrative border, confirmed that Gali residents had cast votes at polling stations in Zugdidi but could not give figures.

Political expert Archil Gegeshidze told the Messenger that most ethnic Georgians in Gali are expected to vote for former president and United National Movement leader Mikheil Saakashvili.

Territorial integrity has been a key rallying point in presidential campaigns, and authorities want a strong show of support for Saakashvili in conflict regions.

However, the past few days have seen media reports that de facto authorities are engaging in voter intimidation in the region.

Georgia’s Rustavi 2 TV channel had reported that the Abkhaz militia conducted a military operation in Gali district, burning down seven houses and arresting eight villagers in the conflict zone.

The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a statement on January 3 claiming that the alleged raids were “aimed at intimidating the local population… thus preventing them from participating in the forthcoming presidential election.”

On January 4, on the eve of the election, de facto Abkhaz officials denied Tbilisi’s claims that ethnic Georgians in the conflict zone were being subjected to intimidation.

Whether physical intimidation has taken place or not, de facto foreign minister Sergey Shamba had strong words for ethnic Georgians in the conflict zone planning to nip over the Enguri River and place their vote in Zugdidi polling stations on January 3.

“If someone wants to be engaged in [Georgian] politics, then they can be engaged in politics in Georgia. They were warned that if they want to take part in the elections, they will encounter problems coming back,” Shamba told Mze TV on January 3.

Increased tension in the breakaway region of Abkhazia has been a continuing theme in the run-up to the election, with Tbilisi making repeated allegations that de facto Abkhaz authorities, in cooperation with Russia, have been orchestrating a military build-up in the conflict zone. The allegations have been flatly denied by both Moscow and Sokhumi.

Update: Telavi precinct may have results anulled

Our reporter at the Central Election Commission headquarters says there is a high likelihood of the results from Telavi's 1st precinct of being annulled.

A man was arrested earlier today for stuffing a paper into the ballot box; the paper was not retrieved, and if it turns out to have been a ballot, the results will be thrown out.

New Rights allege violent intimidation

Oppositional New Rights representatives say one of their observers, Kakha Merabishvili, was beaten in a Samtskhe-Javakheti village because he wanted to write a complaint letter to the Central Election Commission. The claim is unconfirmed; other opposition campaigners say they are particularly worried about abuses in Samtskhe-Javakheti and other districts with heavy ethnic minority populations. (Samtskhe-Javakheti is majority ethnic Armenian.)

The New Rights also report that voters wishing to register today are being turned away from some Kutaisi and Tbilisi polling stations, after election officials say they ran out of the pink envelopes in which the ballots of same-day registered voters are sealed to prevent multiple voting.

Labor say their candidate is targeted for assassination

Labor Party representative Nestan Kirtadze claimed someone ordered a hit on their candidate, Shalva Natelashvili, after 8 p.m. tonight. It will be Saakashvili's fault if he dies, she said.

Natelashvili and his allies have made similar, unsubstantiated, claims in the past; so far, he has an impressive track record of surviving these plots.

Arrest in Telavi

In the large eastern town of Telavi, the justice minister announced, police arrested a man trying to stuff a ballot box. She did not say which party he was affiliated with, but suggested the incident could be a "provocation."

South Ossetian residents turning out in force

Turnout is very strong in the South Ossetian conflict zone, where authorities would like a show of support for Saakashvili. South Ossetia is a patchwork of state and separatist-controlled villages, and regaining Georgia's two separatists regions has been the country's top domestic priority for a decade.

In Tamarasheni, a government-controlled village less than a kilometer from the de facto secessionist South Ossetian capita, 510 out of 755 registered voters showed up by 5 p.m., according to a local election commissioner. In Avnebi, another South Ossetian village, 640 out of 840 cast their ballots by 5 p.m.

The only reported problem in Avnebi came when supporters of Levan Gachechiladze approached the village from the wrong road -- they reportedly passed through three separatist-controlled villages before reaching Avnebi and being denied entrance.

Later, we'll have a post looking at the role the conflict zones are playing in this election, and vice versa.

Trouble in Kutaisi?

Journalists in Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city, say Saakashvili campaign workers there are already announcing their victory in the town's polls.

There are just under four hours before the country's polls close.

And supporters of New Rights candidate Davit Gamkrelidze claim that ruling party workers "stole" a ballot box from the Kutaisi school which acting president Nino Burjanadze once attended.

Early turnout numbers, by district

Below is a list of midday turnout percentages by election district, and by districts within Tbilisi.

Turnout is especially strong in Upper Abkhazia and Liakhvi, Tbilisi-controlled portions of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively. There aren't many voters there, but conflict zone residents are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Saakashvili.

Tbilisi- 14,78
Upper Abkhazia- 46.64
Liakhvi- 31.40
Batumi- 14.82
Poti- 15.34
Abasha- 25.12
Senaki- 21.89
Akhalkalaki- 22.15
Bolnisi- 25.87
Mtskheta- 18.47
Borjomi- 18.85
Kazbegi- 9.20
Tsalka- 9.27
Sagarejo- 16.18
Gurjaani- 16.20
Signaghi- 19.90
Dedoplistskharo- 13.80
Lagodekhi- 15.30
Qvareli- 18.81
Telavi- 15.52
Akhmeta- 15.33
Tianeti- 14.44
Rustavi- 15.12
Gardabani- 12.59
Marneuli- 18.36
Dmanisi- 16.58
Tetritskharo- 12.68
Dusheti- 15.85
Kaspi- 15.08
Akhalgori- 17.17
Gori- 13.20
Khashuri- 18.35
Akhaltsikhe- 17.94
Adigeni- 17.74
Aspindza- 17.50
Akhalkalaki- 22.15
Ninotsminda- 17.86
Oni- 16.52
Ambrolauri- 21.55
Tsageri- 26.47
Lentekhi- 19.13
Mestia- 18.22
Kharagauli- 21.15
Terjola- 19.45
Sachkhere- 17.23
Zestaphoni- 17.78
Baghdati- 17.47
Vani- 21.42
Samtredia- 17.17
Khoni- 20.36
Chiatura- 13.01
Tqibuli- 23.92
Tskhaltubo- 19.57
Kutaisi- 17.21
Ozurgeti- 15.04
Lanchkhuti- 17.60
Chokhatauri- 20.86
Abasha- 25.12
Senaki- 21.89
Martvili- 18.27
Khobi- 19.04
Zugdidi- 15.84
Tsalenjikha- 18.89
Chkhorotskhu- 18.52
Keda- 20.45
Kobuleti- 15.17
Shuakhevi- 23.16
Khelvachauri- 15.98
Khulo- 15.20

Tbilisi districts:
Mtatsminda- 14
Vake- 14.74
Saburtalo- 15.21
Krtsanisi- 16.55
Isani- 14.15
Samgori- 15.47
Chugureti- 14.83
Didube- 17.15
Nadzaladevi- 15.41
Gldani- 14.68

Saakashvili spokesman: arrest anyone making trouble

Saakashvili campaign spokesman Davit Bakradze, who is also a state minister, urged police to arrest anyone making disturbances at polling places, regardless of party.

He also denied Labor Party allegations that ruling party supporters were being bussed from station to station to vote multiple times.

Other opposition politicians have said marking ink, placed on voters' thumbs to guard against multiple voting, was not available or running low in some precincts.

Patriarch casts vote

Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, declined to tell journalists which candidate he had opted for when he cast his vote earlier today.

He said that he voted for the candidate he thought would bring peace and unity to the country, adding that he trusted voters to make the right decision.

The Patriarch has voted in previous elections, but never reveals his chosen candidate.

CEC chief: strong turnout

Central Election Commission head Levan Tarkhnishvili put voter turnout at 16 percent by noon today, up three or four percent from the same time period in the 2004 presidential election. Tarkhnishvili pointed out that this year's voter registration list is about a million names longer than in 2004, suggesting that we are seeing very strong turnout today.

Saakashvili and government officials have all called for a strong turnout today; if he wins, that would help seal his renewed mandate.

However, Hans Gutbrod of the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, who has been in Georgia for past elections, said he didn't think this represents a strong turnout so far.

Local NGOs reporting irregularities, not fraud

Georgian Young Lawyer's Association representative Giorgi Chkheidze says his organization is registering widespread irregularities and technical problems, but not overt signs of fraud.

Problems included unstamped boxes, issues with the marking process and inaccurate voter lists.

Meanwhile, representatives of the Labor Party, which has small but significant voter support and has been very confrontational toward the government, say their representatives were kicked out from a polling station in a village near Tbilisi. Authorities have not denied or confirmed the reports.

With 3747 polling stations, seven candidates and more that 20 officially registered observing organizations, we can expect plenty of conflicting reports and numbers throughout the day.

"No justice, no peace"

Marginal candidate Gia Maisashvili was broadcast on Georgian TV warning (not threatening) Saakashvili that if there is no justice today, there will be no peace.

The country's collective opposition, which has put up six different candidates against Saakashvili, has repeatedly warned of protests and instability if voters perceive the results of today's election as unfair.

Reports of abuses by local officials

An opposition member of the Central Election Commission told journalists their representative was forced to leave a precinct in the western port town of Poti after a call from local authorities. The incident was resolved after central CEC involvement.

Most vote violations today, if they are confirmed, are expected to be the work of local government bosses called gamgebeli. Some may be arranging vote fraud in their precincts unilaterally, as was once the habit in this former Soviet nation. That is why, no matter how earnestly central authorities promise a free and fair election, some irregularities are inevitable -- but not necessarily to the extent that they invalidate the entire election.

Let us know what you think

We have Messenger journalists across Tbilisi and the country to bring you live reports today.

If there is something you want to know but isn't being reported, tell us. If you have a question, ask us, either via email or in comments on this blog. We're speaking to experts with local knowledge and reporters on the ground to give you the coverage the international media can't.

Georgian think tank chief: voting process appears mostly normal so far

Dr. Alexander Rondeli, President of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS) told the Messenger that the voting process appears to be mostly normal so far.

However, he expressed concern at the lack of political culture in Georgia demonstrated in the run up to elections.

If Georgia truly is back on track to democracy after the election, the elected president will have to cooperate with the opposition in future, which may be difficult given the allegations leveled by both sides in recent weeks.

Rondeli also said that the opposition’s persistent claims that election fraud is inevitable, “only adds to intrigue in a country under pressure.”

GFSIS is a Georgian-based think tank and one of four organizations managing exit polls today.

CEC head denies early reports of violations

Representatives from a Georgian trade union monitoring the election said observers were not allowed at an election district in Tsalka, and that ballots cast for candidates other than incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili were torn up in a Tbilisi suburb.

A Central Election Commission spokesman said those reports were not true; he also denied claims from opposition campaigners of broader scale fraud.

Not terribly well practiced in democratic elections, Georgia will inevitably have more than a few violations and irregularities to report today. The key question is whether voters will perceive violations as systematic and ultimately affecting the entire election result.

The polls are (mostly) open

It snowed an inch overnight in Tbilisi, slowing transportation; many polling stations in the capital opened late, but voting has since gone relatively smoothly in most places.

Residents of the mountain village of Shatili will not be voting, however -- heavy snow kept local commissioners from reaching the polling place. Weather across the rest of Georgia has been blustery, but initial reports say turnout is strong.

Some complaints have come in from Tbilisi, where wary voters are glancing over their local election lists for dead neighbors (and finding them), irregularities they fear could be used for vote fraud.

The first official results are expected in eleven hours. Until then, we'll be looking at election conduct, the situation in the secessionist regions, exit poll results and everything else you need to follow and understand during the day.

Keep checking back for continuous coverage of Georgia's most fiercely contested presidential election from Georgia's most trusted newspaper.