Several thousand people filled a square in the Georgian capital yesterday, protesting early election results that indicated former president Mikhail Saakashvili would narrowly win a second term.
The influential election observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave the election a mixed assessment, saying that it was generally in line with democratic commitments but that it had revealed "significant challenges." It pointed especially to "an inequitable campaign environment" because state activities overlapped Saakashvili's campaign.
Opposition protesters charged that the vote was rigged.
With about 8 percent of precincts counted, Saakashvili had 55.23 percent of the vote and his main challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, had 23.86 percent, the Central Elections Commission said. A candidate needs an absolute majority to win in the first round -- if Saakashvili slips below 50 percent in the final results, a runoff will be held in two weeks.
The US-educated Saakashvili, who was once praised as an icon of democracy reform in the former Soviet Union, was seeking a new mandate and fighting to preserve his democratic standing. He shocked his Western allies when he violently dispersed anti-government demonstrations late last year and shut down an independent television station.
Opposition leaders said the campaign was held under unfair conditions and claimed there were widespread violations during the vote.
Gachechiladze, speaking on television early yesterday, claimed he had won in most precincts and that the vote count was being held under conditions of "terror." He called for protests yesterday afternoon, urging "all of Georgia to come to make sure we don't lose our country."
Some 5,000 people showed up for an opposition demonstration in the center of Tbilisi and their number was growing.
There were fears that the protest could swell into mass rallies and prompt a tough government response, like that in November, but opposition leader David Zurabishvili said that the event would be an "information rally," where the opposition would declare Gachechiladze's alleged lead.
Georgia was preparing to celebrate Orthodox Christmas yesterday -- one of the most important holidays -- and many people could feel reluctant to cancel holiday plans for the sake of protests.
Saakashvili's supporters poured onto the streets late on Saturday, waving flags and celebrating victory based on exit poll results.
While still waiting for official results, Saakashvili said the exit poll showed him winning and called for reconciliation in a speech to supporters at a celebratory concert.
"If the final results confirm that I have won in the first round, then I will assume the honor and responsibility to serve all of Georgia for the next five years," he said. "I'm extending my hand to those who voted for me and to those who took part in the elections."