Ruling party 'set for landslide' in Georgia vote

President Mikheil Saakashvili's party looked set for a big win in Georgia's parliamentary elections, with exit polls giving the United National Movement over 63 percent as the opposition cried foul. (Report: N. Rushworth)


TBILISI, May 21 (Reuters) - An independent exit poll showed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party set to win Wednesday’s parliamentary election, but a senior opposition leader claimed victory and protests were expected.


“In Georgia our democracy is alive and well,” Saakashvili proclaimed after casting his ballot with his Dutch wife who voted for the first time as a Georgian citizen.


The exit poll gave Saakashvili’s United National Movement party about 63 percent of the votes and the opposition coalition 14 to 16 percent.


However, the opposition, which has accused Saakashvili of rigging the election, said it had won.


“I would like to congratulate Georgian society on the fact that the opposition has won in all of Georgia,” David Gamkrelidze, one of the leaders of the opposition coalition, told reporters. “The authorities have totally lost,” he said.


Opposition officials were not immediately available to comment on the exit poll.


They had said before polls closed that they would rally 100,000 people in the centre of Tbilisi to protest after the election.


The first official results are not expected until later in the night and if the exit poll is accurate, then Saakashvili’s party would win more than half the 150 seats in parliament.


The West sees the election as a test of Saakashvili’s commitment to democracy as he steers his ex-Soviet Caucasus country towards the NATO military alliance, a step that has riled giant neighbour Russia.


The democratic credentials of the 40-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer were badly tarnished when he sent riot troops to crush protests last November. Opponents say he stole victory in a snap January presidential poll, a charge he denies.


The media-savvy Saakashvili, a fluent English speaker who has Western support in his row with Russia over its support for Georgia’s two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, says he wants a “beautiful” vote.


The exit poll put the Christian Democratic Movement third with about 8 to 9 percent and the Labour party fourth with about 5 to 6 percent. Polls closed at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT).


Georgia is really a role model for many countries in this region and we intend to stay this way despite all the external pressures we are coming under,” Saakashvili said after voting.


With a population of 4.5 million and a booming $10 billion economy, Georgia lies at the heart of the Caucasus where the United States and Russia vie for influence over a key transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian to Europe.

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