You may have heard there was an election in Georgia on Monday. You also may not have. Despite the the rather strained attempts by some U.S. Georgia experts to put this vote on par with Egypt and Libya and endow it with the power to rock the U.S. Presidential campaigns, it’s basically a local story. But a very big local story. The fear-mongering of a U.S. election campaign — pretending the other guy is going to dismantle our way of life and turn us into communists or fascists — is actually a live threat in a country where the political institutions aren’t even a generation old, and the spectacle of dissidents lined up against the wall is easily in living memory. It’s easy to forget that, and it explains the electric nervousness of the city in the weeks leading up to the big day. The sounds of the season have been jackhammer construction and chanting demonstrations. Both kicked off by politics, and both building into a mighty crescendo for the elections. Donald Rumsfeld told us that democracy was messy. He might have added it was also pretty noisy.
So the city was braced for the battle. Daily demonstrations raging against a late-breaking prison abuse scandal sprouted around town every night. The government, eager for photo ops, whipped construction crews into a frenzy and the streets were choked with cyclones of dust. The hordes of grizzled workmen banging away around the clock seemed just about enough to raise pyramids up on Rustaveli Avenue. (“My brother’s management style,” said a friend whose brother is in government and overseeing some of the construction: “is basically: finish before the elections or you go to prison.”)
Governments don’t budge easily in this part of the world, and they don’t like close shaves on polling day. In this, Georgia was already veering off script. The Moscow correspondents of big papers sent to Tbilisi to cover the elections marveled at the novelty. Thirty minutes before the polls close and you don’t know the outcome? What sort of post-Soviet banana republic is this anyway?
There is a standard protocol to be followed here. You don’t leave anything up to chance. You certainly don’t let the opposition win. And you never, ever, concede without a fight.
Reliable for delivering drama and surprise, Georgia pulled the wildest trick of all: the government exhausted its tricks and, with a sigh, went into opposition. In Georgia, the most unlikely revolution of all is the one that doesn’t happen. Anybody who says they know what the opposition is all about is full of it. We know they’re political novices and haven’t made an impressive start. The outgoing government were the architects of 2003’s democratic revolution, but their hubris and unchecked messiah complex brought on abuse. With this concession and retreat into opposition, they salvaged their own democratic birthright. It is not at all clear, yet, whether it is good that the opposition coalition won. But it is good, I believe, that this government lost.
I was on Freedom Square when the polling stations closed and the exit poll results were announced — a decent approximation, usually, of what the official results will be. Around me were throngs of opposition supporters of all ages and classes. University girls, chain-smoking taxi drivers, Moms with kids, grey hairs, rowdy boys. I suddenly heard cheers go up from pockets of the crowd as the news of an opposition victory spread through cell phones. Around me people begin hugging and clapping and cheering. It seemed miraculous. Two weeks ago – before the prison abuse scandal – the government had been polling 20 points ahead. It was a spectacular collapse. A stunned euphoria settled over the opposition-friendly capital and the party rocked the city all night. The air was shattered by car horns, people danced in the streets, the police kept a light presence, and the entire city had the feel of a house party with the parents out of town.
Around the corner from the epicenter, tucked back in my little corner of the Old Town, the mood was quieter. There is an old woman, something of a stout, middle-aged Rapunzel. Roosted firmly on her balcony, she serves as town cryer for our little quarter. In the mornings I see her lowering a small basket from a length of rope so that the newspaper seller can fill it with the daily journals, which she heaves back up to her wooden perch. That night, she leaned over the balcony and looked through her thick glasses at the five or six men gathered below. She calmly relayed the exit poll results, and the men repeated the figures back carefully, making sure they understood. The soccer playing boys on my street appeared wrapped in opposition flags for their nightly match. I strolled back up to my attic hideaway, looked up over the Narikala fortress lit up on the hillside, and marveled at what had just happened. This city has been standing here for 15 centuries, maybe more. It’s been sacked by Persians, ruled by Arabs, under the thumb of the Russians, dismembered by civil war, trampled by militias, and raged with revolution. The one thing it had never done, until now, is hold an election where the other guy wins.
more photos and videos from Election night here.