Georgia's Saakashvili claims victory
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President Mikheil Saakashvili claims he has won parliamentary elections in Georgia. Early results showed his United National Movement was leading, though the opposition cried foul. (Report: N. Rushworth)
TBILISI - Georgia's National Movement of President Mikheil Saakashvili was leading with 60.92 percent of the vote in the country's parliamentary election, early official results showed on Thursday.
With 13 percent of ballots counted, the main opposition bloc, which had earlier accused the authorities of rigging the vote, was second with 14.61 percent.
An independent exit poll had earlier showed Saakashvili's party had won 63.1 percent of the votes in the Wednesday election with the main opposition bloc taking 14.2 percent.
The results published by the Central Election Commission (CEC) put the Christian Democratic Movement third with 8.29 percent and the Labour party fourth with 6.98 percent.
The opposition, which claimed victory in the election ten minutes before polls closed, said there had been massive vote rigging across the Caucasus country of 4.5 million.
The West says the election is a test of Saakashvili's commitment to democracy as he steers his ex-Soviet Caucasus country towards the NATO military alliance, a policy that has riled giant neighbour Russia.
"Even I was astonished by the big level of support which we got in these parliamentary elections," Saakashvili said in recorded comments released ahead of an address to the nation.
Saakashvili said his United National Movement party could get close to a constitutional majority, which is two thirds of the 150 seats. He said the views of all political parties in the new parliament would be taken into account.
"Yesterday was the triumph of the will of the Georgian people," Saakashvili said. "No-one can raise their hand against the will of the Georgian people."
Opposition coalition leader Levan Gachechiladze said he would call 100,000 people onto the streets to claim victory. But only about 4,000 gathered in central Tbilisi, with some even watching a soccer game on a giant television before the rally.
Saakashvili, who relies on Western support in his row with Russia over Moscow's support for Georgia's two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, said he wanted a "beautiful" vote.
"It was a total falsification. We have never ever seen anything like this before in Georgian elections," said Irakly Iashvili, one the opposition coalition's leaders. "But despite all those violations the opposition coalition still won."
Georgia's booming $10 billion economy lies at the heart of the Caucasus, where the United States and Russia are jostling for influence over a key transit route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
Saakashvili swept to power in the peaceful 2003 "Rose" revolution, promising market reforms and a shift to re-orienting his country towards Europe and the United States.
But 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. He won a snap January presidential election which critics said was rigged.
"In Georgia our democracy is alive and well," he proclaimed after casting his ballot with his Dutch wife, Sandra, who voted for the first time as a Georgian citizen.
"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," he said.
The Central Election Commission said the vote was free and fair. Europe's leading election monitor said before the election it had found cases of intimidation by state employees campaigning for Saakashvili's party and that television news was skewed in favour of the ruling party.
Many Georgians are unhappy with soaring prices for fuel and food while the opposition says Saakashvili has failed to tackle unemployment and high-level corruption remains rampant.
The opposition, which broadly supports closer ties with the West and NATO, says Saakashvili's rhetoric about democracy masks intolerance of dissent.
"There will be no new Rose Revolution here because I don't like roses. The Rose Revolution and the democratic revolution is a farce -- this was a U.S. experiment," said Gachechiladze, who once worked as one of Saakashvili's political advisors.
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