Exit poll shows Georgian leader wins election outright

Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili won the former Soviet republic's presidential election outright, an exit poll showed, but the opposition said the vote was rigged and called for mass protests on Sunday.

The exit poll gave the pro-U.S. Saakashvili more than half the vote, twice that of his nearest opponent. Official results from 55 polling stations, or about two percent of the ballot, showed Saakashvili with 25,304 votes and his main rival 6,775.

"According to the exit polls and all the data we have won, although as a democratic party we should wait for the central election commission's final results," Saakashvili told cheering supporters.

The West is monitoring the fairness of the election. Saakashvili, who swept to power in a peaceful so-called "Rose Revolution" in 2003, shocked Western allies by violently crushing anti-government street protests in November.

The birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Georgia lies at the heart of the South Caucasus -- which hosts a major pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and where Russia and the United States are battling for influence.

Saakashvili's opponents, who have accused the 40-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer of autocratic rule, economic mismanagement and corruption, called the election a fraud.

"Saakashvili is lying," Levan Gachechiladze, leader of a nine-party opposition coalition, told reporters. "The exit polls have been falsified."

He said the opposition had won Saturday's election and asked people to celebrate his victory at a rally in the capital Tbilisi on Sunday.

The opposition rallies in November attracted about 100,000 protesters at their peak and lasted for five days until police quelled them with teargas and rubber bullets.

Election authorities were not expected to announce the first preliminary results until later on Sunday, but Saakashvili's supporters were already celebrating in the streets of Tbilisi, sounding car horns and waving the national flag.

The exit poll gave Saakashvili 53.8 percent of the vote and Gachechiladze 28.3 percent.

Saakashvili called Saturday's snap election to defuse a standoff with the opposition after the November protests.

It was the first big test of voters' faith in the "Rose Revolution" that swept Saakashvili to power on a tide of euphoria, but which many people say has failed to deliver improvements they hoped for.

After the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia's elections were heavily one-sided or called fraudulent.

The main Western election monitors will give their assessment of the vote on Sunday.

"This election was not ideal of course, but they were definitely much, much better than any previous election has been," said Temur Iakobashvili, a Georgian political analyst who took part in the exit poll.

Gachechiladze's campaign officials said they had recorded cases of people being allowed to vote more than once, and voters and opposition observers being intimidated.

Saakashvili's camp said there had been isolated violations but denied there was widespread fraud, saying the opposition was crying foul to divert attention from its defeat.

Saakashvili has pushed through liberal economic reforms and steered Georgia toward NATO membership, policies with which his opponents broadly agree.

Relations have been tense with Russia, which strongly opposes the expansion of the Western alliance in its backyard and has backed two separatist regions in Georgia.

Saakashvili's reforms have attracted foreign investment and generated economic growth of 9-12 percent a year. U.S. President George W. Bush once hailed Georgia as a "beacon of democracy". ( Reuters )

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