Mon, Nov 10, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Georgia suspends ballot-counting

RIGGED POLL Officials stopped tallying votes in the general election, which has been dismissed as a sham, while protesters trapped the president in his office

AFP , TBILISI, GEORGIA

Election officials in the former Soviet republic of Georgia late Saturday suspended the counting of ballots in the general election, as 10,000 protesters called for President Eduard Shevardnadze to step down and the cancellation of the vote, which has been marred by irregularities.

They said they had decided to stop tallying votes in the disputed Nov. 2 poll because of the many complaints of irregularities they had received.

"There are a lot of complaints and until those complaints have been sorted out in the courts, I will not put out any results no matter what pressure I am put under," said Nana Devdariani, the chairwoman of the Georgian electoral commission.

"My cut-off date is Nov. 20," she added.

Shevardnadze was in a fight for his political life, with protesters marching on downtown Tbilisi in the biggest political demonstration since a civil war in 1991 which eventually swept him to power.

Thousands vowed they would not budge from outside the country's parliament building until Shevardnadze, who has fallen out of favor because of a stumbling economy and increasing corruption, resigns. As night fell, the number of protesters in the capital dwindled amid a cold and steady drizzle, but opposition leaders said the demonstrators would be back in even greater numbers yesterday to keep up the pressure on the president.

For about an hour, Shevardnadze was trapped in his office after a splinter group of about 100 protesters blocked the only road leading from the presidential administration building.

Police, who were on duty in large numbers to monitor the protests, threatened to use force to clear the road. But the situation was defused when the protesters moved on voluntarily.

The protest was sparked by the parliamentary election which thousands of voters complained was rigged by the government. International observers also dismissed the poll as a sham.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had more than 400 observers monitoring last weekend's vote in the former Soviet republic, said it was marred by "spectacular" voting irregularities.

Although partial election results given shortlty before counting was suspended gave Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia coalition just 20.47 percent of the vote and the various opposition parties around 70 percent, the opposition has been pushing for a new vote to be held.

Anger over the election has quickly turned into a test of strength between 75-year-old Shevardnadze, whose popularity is waning, and the opposition.

"We will not leave here until Shevardnadze has resigned and new presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled," said Mikhail Saakashvili, the head of an opposition party who has spearheaded the protests.

"Today, a lot of people who wanted to join us were not able to. Tomorrow, tens of thousands of people will come here and will stay until the president steps down," Saakashvili said.

A hard core of about 5,000 protesters, sheltering from the rain under plastic sheeting, were planning to stay overnight on the steps outside the parliament building.

The spot is a symbolic one: it was the venue where protesters in the early 1990s clashed first with the Soviet authorities and later with the government of Shevardnadze's predecessor.

The former Soviet foreign minister is due to retire in 2005 at the end of his second term of office. He made no public comment Saturday -- following a televised appeal for calm a day earlier -- but his aides were defiant.

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