Fri, May 23, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Saakashvili’s party takes the lead in early returns

GEORGIAN ELECTIONSThe opposition says it will challenge the results, claiming the polls were rigged

AGENCIES , TBILISI

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party was close to securing victory yesterday in parliamentary polls closely watched by outside powers vying for influence in the region.

Saakashvili’s United National Movement had won 63 percent, according to results from about a third of polling stations, as other stations continued to finalize their counts, the election commission Web site showed.

If that trend continues, the party would win an overwhelming majority of the 75 parliamentary seats assigned under a party list system.

Another 75 seats are assigned on the basis of single-mandate constituencies, where Saakashvili’s party is also expected to score a strong majority.

Even before the first official results, the country’s pro-Western leader claimed victory, based on exit polling from a group of Georgian research centers, which also gave his party more than 63 percent.

Wednesday’s elections “were free and fair and I hope international observers will confirm that. But the most amazing thing is the landslide victory for the government party,” Saakashvili told reporters in the western city of Zugdidi.

“Several opposition parties made it into parliament,” he said. If you look back this is the most multi-party parliament since Georgia’s independence.”

But one opposition leader, David Gamkrelidze, said voters had been intimidated by local officials and police and that the media had been dominated by coverage of the ruling party.

“This was a criminal election,” Gamkrelidze said.

“We together with the people must achieve the cancellation of the election results and the calling of a new parliamentary election,” he said.

The United Opposition Council, a coalition group, has already denounced the vote as rigged and held its first protest on Wednesday night.

The vote was seen as a test of Georgia’s democratic credentials as the country seeks Western support in a bitter standoff with Russia over the breakaway province of Abkhazia. On polling day Georgia accused Abkhaz rebel forces of shooting at voters with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in a volatile border area, injuring four as they headed to polls.

The early results put the United Opposition Council in second place with about 13.3 percent of the vote. Two other parties were on track to surpass the 5 percent threshold required to win party-list seats.

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