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Europe

Ruling Party Wins Georgian Election Opposition Calls 'Rigged'

Exit polls predicted a massive win for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's party on Wednesday, May 21. Opposition leaders claimed the poll was fraudulent and promised to stage demonstrations.

Supporters of Georgian presidential candidate Mikhail Saakashvili waves flags during a rally, celebrating the exit polls results announcement in Tbilisi, Georgia, early Sunday, Jan. 6, 2008

President Saakashvili's party likely won more than half of the parliament's seats

Saakashvili's United Nation Movement received 63 percent of the popular vote in national elections. The president's closest rival, the United Opposition group, would receive approximately 15 percent of ballots cast, according to exit polls.

The poll numbers -- if confirmed by official counts expected on Thursday -- would allow the UNM and Saakashvili to dominate the country's politics and make decisions at will, to include changing the constitution.

Two other small political players appeared on track to place MPs in parliament -- a party led by television announcer Georgy Targamadze with 9 percent, and the Labor Party with slightly more than 5 percent.

A Georgian woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tbilisi, Georgia, Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Voter turnout was higher than in January's elections, the CEC said

If preliminary polls prove accurate, Saakashvili's party would win more than half of the 150 seats in parliament.

"The exit poll is the first sign that these elections were rigged," said United Opposition Council leader Levan Gachechiladze, runner-up against Saakashvili in a presidential vote in January.

Georgians voted for a new parliament against a background of accusations of vote fraud allegedly committed by Saakashvili and his allies, and a firefight in a border region disputed between Tbilisi and the Kremlin.

The vote was the first legislative referendum faced by the Saakashvili-led party since winning a majority in Georgia's first-ever open parliamentary contest after the pro-democracy Rose Revolution five years ago.

Observers present

Georgians cast their ballots four months after Saakashvili, 40, won by 54 percent in snap elections called in the wake of violence between police and opposition protesters blaming the government for corruption, unemployment and curbing freedoms.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his wife Sandra Roelofs are leaves voting booths at a polling station in Tbilisi, Georgia, Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Saakashvili said holding a calm election was an important test for Georgia

More than 4,500 observers were monitoring the elections Wednesday. The poll was widely seen as a litmus test for the US-educated Saakashvili's credentials with the West as the Georgian leader is pushing to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and curry support in longstanding disputes with Moscow.

"I want everybody to understand ... the international community is watching these elections closely," Saakashvili told journalists after casting his ballot in the capital Tbilisi on Wednesday.

Saakashvili's reputation as a West-leaning democrat was tarnished when he ordered troops to crush protests last November.

Difficult situation for Georgia

"Georgia remains in a very difficult international situation now," he said in apparent reference to difficulties with neighboring Russia, news agency Interfax reported. "Under such pressure and blackmail, holding an organized and calm election will be equivalent to Georgia's democracy passing an important test."

Protesters demonstrating before the election

Protesters had already taken to the streets before the election took place

Just a few hours into voting the nine-party opposition coalition alleged "grave violations" at over 12 polling stations and promised over 100,000 protesters would take to the streets.

Opposition leader David Gamkrelidze warned the government, "If they don't want a rebellion of the people and civil war, they must stop the mass falsifications at the regional polls."

He also claimed victory in the election and accused Saakashvili of rigging the polls.

"I would like to congratulate Georgian society on the fact that the opposition has won in all of Georgia," Gamkrelidze told reporters. "The authorities have totally lost."

Another opposition bloc leader, Levan Gachechiladze, said demonstrations protesting the vote's outcome would be held Wednesday.

Unrest on election day

A dpa news agency reporter observed a substantial and sometimes unconcealed police presence near polling stations and in public areas in the provincial city Gori.

Georgian television carried images of election officials and opposition representatives in provincial villages fighting with fists as a result of an election procedure dispute.

Violence struck near the villages Gali and Zugdidi, on the border of Georgia and its renegade province Abkahzia, where local citizens were fired on by unknown assailants.

A helicopter of Russian peacekeeping forces landing in the town of Ochamchire in Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia on Dec. 6, 2007

Increases in Russian troops in Abkazia are keeping ties between Moscow and Tbilisi tense

Georgian television carried images of soldiers returning fire with automatic rifles and machine guns. One woman was shown with a gunshot wound to her back.

Abkhazian troops had fired upon ethnic Georgians returning to Georgian territory to vote, according to the news reports. They Georgia government claimed the attackers used automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades to take a pair of buses carrying voters.

Tensions with Moscow

Saakashvili has said the situation was close to war two weeks ago, and Russia has increased its peacekeeping troops in the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the maximum under a 1994 ceasefire that ended civil war.

The Interior Ministry in Tbilisi said several people were injured in at least two explosions on buses. A media consultant employed by the Saakashvili administration claimed the blasts were part of an Abkhazian attempt to undermine the elections.

The mountainous former Soviet republic of Georgia has been at the heart of a regional struggle for influence between the United States and neighboring Russia since it gained its independence in 1991. Stretching south-east from the Black Sea, Georgia straddles a key pipeline for Caspian gas to Europe.

Analysts fear that Georgia's opposition could well act out its threats of post-election demonstrations against rigged voting leading to prolonged unrest.

"I wouldn't rule out the possibility of escalation in the aftermath because the votes of those dissatisfied will be barely counted. So, they will take to the streets again," an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie, Alexei Malashenko, wrote in business daily Kommersant Wednesday.

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