/ 22 May 2008

Saakashvili leads vote, opposition cries foul

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared victory on Thursday in a parliamentary election that the opposition said was rigged in his favour and vowed to challenge by calling street protests.

Saakashvili said Wednesday’s vote was fair, but the rigging allegations and the threat of protests will test his claim to lead the most democratic state in the region.

The pro-Western president needs a clean election to persuade sceptical European states that it is worth defying Russian objections by making Georgia, a key transit route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea to Europe, a Nato member.

With ballots being counted, Saakashvili declared victory and said his United National Movement could get close to a constitutional majority — or two thirds of the seats — in Parliament.

”Yesterday [Wednesday] 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.”

But he added in an address to the nation: ”Even I was astonished by the big level of support which we got in these parliamentary elections.”

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 told Reuters.

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

Europe’s leading election monitor, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), was to give its preliminary verdict on the fairness of Wednesday’s election at 5pm (1pm GMT).

Opinion polls predicted Saakashvili’s victory but analysts expected a smaller winning margin because of discontent over soaring prices for food and fuel, and the president’s decision to use tear gas to break up street protests last year.

Strategic state

Georgia lies at the heart of the Caucasus, where the United States and Russia are jostling for influence over the oil and gas transit route.

It is locked in a dispute with Russia over its Nato ambitions and Moscow’s support for the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi’s Western allies have taken its side in the row.

With over a third of ballots counted, Saakashvili’s party had 63% of the vote while the main opposition coalition bloc was in second place with 13%, according to the Central Election Commission.

The Christian Democratic Movement was third with 8% and the Labour party fourth with 6%. The election commission said the vote was fair.

Opposition coalition leader Levan Gachechiladze said as polling stations closed that he would call 100 000 people onto the streets to claim victory.

But only about 4 000 gathered in central Tbilisi on Wednesday night and spent the first part of the protest watching the soccer Champions League final on giant screens.

Leaders of the coalition said they would meet on Thursday to decide their strategy.

Saakashvili, a United States-educated lawyer, swept to power in the peaceful 2003 ”Rose” revolution. He promised 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 leader 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.

The opposition, which broadly supports closer ties with the West and Nato, says Saakashvili’s rhetoric about democracy masks intolerance of dissent. – Reuters