Georgia's Saakashvili wins vote: elections chief

Georgia's Saakashvili wins vote: elections chief

( AFP ) - With more than two thirds of votes counted in Georgia's snap presidential election pro-Western leader Mikheil Saakashvili remained on course for victory, an official tally showed Monday.

The Central Election Commission website showed Saakashvili had 51.71 percent of the vote with more than two thirds of total ballots counted and 2,265 of the 3,512 precincts reporting.

His nearest challenger was bitter opponent Levan Gachechiladze, with 25.38 percent, according to the incomplete official count.

Earlier Monday the election commission's chairman, Levan Tarkhnishvili, announced a Saakashvili victory.

However, he said he was basing this on unofficial results, including figures reported by telephone and therefore having no legal force.

Saakashvili, who called Saturday's election in the wake of violent unrest in November, needed to cross a 50-percent barrier to win in a single round.

He told BBC World television on Sunday that ex-Soviet Georgia had passed a "maturity test and proved that it is a real state" and a "vibrant democracy."

There was backing for Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, from the main observer group, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which declared the election largely free and fair.

But the opposition immediately rejected the vote count and took to the streets of the snow-covered capital Tbilisi to protest alleged fraud.

"We don't believe their figures. We don't believe this," said Tamar Rukhadze, spokeswoman for the official runner-up Levan Gachechiladze, who officially got 27 percent.

"We think they tried very hard all day to get more than 50 percent for Saakashvili. We demand a second round," she told AFP.

The commission's announcement was highly surprising since it showed over half of results arriving within just one hour, after having trickled in for 24 hours following close of polls.

Tarkhnishvili explained this saying that his figures were based in part on reports sent to him by telephone because of delays in getting official tallies to him.

"The preliminary results announced... are not legally binding," he said.

"We will announce final, legally binding results later," he added, without specifying when.

Despite the announcement, the official election website -- previously updated on a regular basis -- continued to display results based on votes from fewer than 50 percent of precincts.

Another opposition leader, Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party, expressed suspicion.

"I think they didn't even count those numbers," she told AFP.

Saakashvili had been hoping to restore his democratic credentials and authority when he called the snap election after violent clashes between police and anti-government protestors in November.

However, the opposition's refusal to accept the outcome threatened new instability for a country striving to shake off centuries of Russian dominance and to embrace Western-style reforms.

Gachechiladze led a rally of several thousand people in central Tbilisi to denounce what he said was ballot stuffing, stealing ballot boxes, and sending supporters to vote multiple times.

"We face terror," he told the rally. "We will defend our vote by legal means."

In contrast, the OSCE gave a mostly clean bill of health to Saturday's election.

OSCE mission head, US congressman Alcee Hastings, told journalists that "democracy took a triumphant step" and described the vote as "a valid expression of the choice of the Georgian people."

This finding was dismissed by Moscow, which is bitterly against Saakashvili's drive to remove Georgia from Russia's orbit and integrate with NATO and other Western institutions.

Hastings' comments "seem, at the least, superficial," the Russian foreign ministry said.

Despite appearing set for victory, Saakashvili has seen his authority come under the biggest challenge since he swept to power in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.

Since taking power he has become an increasingly close ally of Washington. The country of just five million people already contributes troops to the war in Iraq and is set to send others to Afghanistan.

Georgia is also of growing strategic importance at the crossroads of Central Asia and Europe, as well as Russia, Iran and NATO member Turkey.

Major US-backed oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean run through the country.

Moscow has struck back at Georgia's pro-Western course with sweeping economic sanctions and support for armed rebels who control two separatist regions of Georgia -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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