Saakashvili claims victory in Georgia election
Rival disputes exit polls, calls for protests
TBILISI, Georgia - President Mikhail Saakashvili claimed victory in yesterday's election in this former Soviet republic, where the advocate of democratic change has been battling accusations of a shift to authoritarianism. But the opposition challenged exit poll results and called for mass protests today.
"According to the exit polls and all the data, we have won," Saakashvili told hundreds of cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters in Tbilisi. "This was another victory for Georgia."
Bolstered by the unofficial poll numbers, Saakashvili's supporters poured into the streets to celebrate. Backers of his main challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, said their candidate was in the lead. Election officials were expected to announce the preliminary official results early today.
With his credibility on the line, Saakashvili abruptly stepped down as president a year and a half ahead of schedule and called for yesterday's election as a referendum on his rule. Observers had begun to question whether power was transforming the popular revolutionary into yet another post-Soviet strongman.
The exit poll indicated that Saakashvili had about 53 percent of the vote, but pollsters stopped canvassing voters four hours before balloting ended, and more than 20 percent of respondents refused to say for whom they'd voted.
The poll suggested that Gachechiladze received 28 percent. Saakashvili needs at least 51 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff later this month. The exit poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Gachechiladze alleged that the exit poll was falsified and said he had won in most precincts. He called for protests this afternoon, urging "all of Georgia to come to make sure we don't lose our country."
Elehie Skoczylaz, a US consultant to the Georgian organizations carrying out the exit poll, defended the way it was conducted. "This was professional, objective, and there was no interference," she said.
Representative Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat heading an election-monitoring mission sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said about two hours before the polls were to close that the election to that point appeared fair. "There does not appear to be anything to suggest there is an election being stolen," she said.
After voting in Tbilisi, Saakashvili, 41, said he was dedicated to ensuring that the election be clean. "We are committed to having Georgia as a beacon of democracy in our part of the world," he said.
Saakashvili campaigned on a platform that included increasing social welfare support. He also defended his program to change Georgia into a country worthy of membership in NATO and the European Union.
Just four years ago, Saakashvili was the young, dapper hero of the "Rose Revolution" who swept into office with nearly 100 percent popular backing.
But grumbles of disillusionment began to emerge. Saakashvili's political woes became serious in November, when the discontent exploded onto the streets of this capital city and police used tear gas and clubs to beat down antigovernment demonstrators. Saakashvili further angered his allies by declaring a state of emergency and silencing an opposition television station.
Doubts about the election results drew a stark picture of the problematic political choices faced by the former Soviet republics, where remnants of the Cold War linger in a tug-of-war for influence between the West and Russia.
A Columbia Law School graduate, Saakashvili has been a staunch US ally since he led his people into the streets in the "Rose Revolution," which ousted a corrupt regime and moved the country away from Moscow's sphere of influence.
He won the January 2004 election with 96 percent of the vote and set out to transform the bankrupt country into a modern European state.
Under Saakashvili, Georgia sent thousands of troops to Iraq, made a hard play for NATO membership, and named a street in Tblisi after President Bush. American aides bustled around at his media events in Tbilisi last week.
Georgia's relations with Russia have deteriorated sharply under Saakashvili, who has alleged that his opponents are being manipulated by Moscow.
Voters turned out in large numbers yesterday, braving ice and snow. There was a sense that Georgia's struggling democracy could rise or fall because of the vote.
Long before November's street unrest, critics warned of cronyism, dwindling independent media, and a cavalier failure to build consensus in Saakashvili's Georgia.
"The government argument is, 'We need to act very quickly.' They talk about a window of opportunity that's open," said Taman Karosanidze, executive director of Transparency International in Tblisi. "For them, it's OK to manipulate the laws, to make certain mistakes. The ends justify the means."
Some election monitors have turned up evidence of voter intimidation heading into the election, Karosanidze said. From about one-third of the country, her group heard reports that public employees were ordered to vote for Saakashvili. Voters were warned that hidden cameras would document their vote, she said.
Saakashvili dismissed his critics as Soviet-era elites stripped of privilege and embittered by his changes. He said he made enemies when he dismissed thousands of crooked police officers and tackled economic change, leading to new taxes and higher electricity bills.
Under his leadership, the economy has more than doubled in size, he said. Georgia is also acknowledged to have tamed much of its low-level corruption.
"You are coming to a country that had no street lights three years ago, that had horrible crime . . . a failed state in every sense of the word," Saakashvili said.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.