Georgia’s opposition called for its supporters to take to the streets on Sunday after a disputed exit poll showed incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili winning in the first round of a snap presidential vote.
Saakashvili predicted victory, saying in a statement that “independent exit polls conducted according to international standards show that we are winning in the first round”.
But main opposition challenger Levan Gachechiladze said in televised comments late on Saturday that he had won the poll.
He called on “all Georgia to come together at 2pm [local time] at [Tbilisi’s central] Rike park tomorrow [Sunday] in order to keep our victory and to celebrate our victory”.
Gachechiladze said the exit poll had been falsified and that “we actually won in almost every precinct, according to our information”.
The exit poll, based on interviews with more than 7 000 people, found Saakashvili was set to win 53,8% of the vote, just crossing the 50% barrier for victory in one round of voting.
Gachechiladze got 28,3%, according to the poll.
Saakashvili said he would wait for official results before declaring victory and reached out to the opposition ahead of the protest.
“No matter who you voted for today [Saturday] … I extend my hand forward in cooperation to all of my opponents who want to serve this country,” he said.
Cheers broke out in Saakashvili’s headquarters in Tbilisi and supporters danced with red and white Georgian flags to the pounding beat of Saakashvili’s campaign song.
Gachechiladze accused Saakashvili of having “started a party to sell his victory to the voters”.
Opposition leaders said the exit poll could not be trusted, arguing the four television channels paying for the poll were pro-government — something the poll’s organisers denied.
Preliminary official results were due on Sunday. If no one candidate wins 50%, the two frontrunners must square off in a second round two weeks later.
The Central Elections Commission (CEC) said voter turnout was 56% on Georgian territory, excluding votes cast at embassies abroad. The minimum turnout required was 50%.
Saakashvili (40) faced six challengers Saturday in the biggest test of his authority since he swept to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution.
He called the election a year early in response to violent clashes between police and protestors in November — violence that badly dented his image as one of the ex-Soviet Union’s leading democratic reformers.
The opposition claimed there were multiple violations of electoral procedures.
“We have the problems we expected. We have seen many serious violations,” another opposition leader, Tina Khidasheli, said.
A CEC spokesperson denied this, saying voting was “proceeding in a calm atmosphere without any serious violations”.
Georgians — including five of the six presidential challengers — overwhelmingly back Saakashvili’s push to end centuries of Russian dominance and to integrate with the West.
Yet many are disenchanted with Saakashvili, who says the November crackdown and subsequent nine-day state of emergency had prevented a coup plot by billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, a candidate in Saturday’s election who received 6,2% of the vote.
Hundreds of foreign election observers were deployed to monitor the vote.
Washington, the European Union and Russia are watching closely, mindful of Georgia’s growing strategic importance.
Major United States-backed oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to Turkey run through Georgia, bypassing Russia to the north and Iran to the south.
Saakashvili has also defied Russian pressure in applying for Nato membership.
In a non-binding referendum also held Saturday, 61% of voters backed the country joining Nato, the exit poll showed. Seventeen percent opposed membership in the military alliance, while 22% refused to answer pollsters.
Moscow punished Georgia’s pro-Western course with sweeping economic sanctions in 2006 and also supports armed rebels who control two separatist regions of Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. — AFP