Georgian president elected amid protests

( AP ) - Thousands of Georgian opposition protesters denounced as fraudulent a presidential election that swept Mikhail Saakashvili to a second term, threatening instability in the former Soviet republic once considered a beacon of reform.

For the pro-Western Saakashvili, the prospect of unrest is an ironic echo of the mass demonstrations that swept him into office four years ago as a champion of democracy fighting rigged elections.

An observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave the election a mixed assessment, calling it a significant step for democracy while pointing to an array of violations. Russia, which vies with the West for influence in Georgia, sharply criticized the vote.

Saakashvili won nearly 53 percent of Saturday's vote - narrowly clearing the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff election - said Central Elections Commission head Levan Tarkhnishvili. His main challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, had 27 percent.

Saakashvili's slim victory Sunday underlined Georgia's deep divisions. His democratic credentials have been in question since police violently dispersed anti-government demonstrations in November and Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency that shut down an independent television station.

He defused the political crisis by calling the early presidential election, cutting short his own five-year term, clearly confident of winning a new mandate.

The OSCE'S criticism of the election puts Saakashvili under pressure to dispel doubts about his democratic intentions that could torpedo his efforts to bring Georgia into both NATO and the European Union.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat heading the OSCE mission, said it was unfair to be too critical of the election, describing it as only a step on Georgia's road to democracy.

"These people are just 16 years away from a level of repression that most Western countries theorize about and they lived," he said by telephone early Monday. "They didn't have a perfect election. They took a step."

Russia, which imposed an economic blockade on Georgia after repeated disputes with Saakashvili, was quick to criticize. "The election campaign can hardly be called 'free and fair'," the Russian Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

Moscow regards Georgia as part of its historical sphere of influence and resents Western aid to Georgia's military and the use of Georgia as a transit country for Caspian oil headed for Turkey.

Opposition leaders said the campaign was held under unfair conditions and claimed there were widespread violations during the vote.

Addressing about 5,000 protesters on a snowy Tbilisi square, Gachechiladze claimed he came first in the vote and called for a second round. He cited a tally by his supporters who served on election commissions across the country.

"Saakashvili lost, and it cannot happen that Georgia will not defend its freedom, that we won't win," said Gachechiladze, 43, a businessman and lawmaker.

Gachechiladze said the opposition will contest the election results in court. He called for another protest Tuesday.

On Monday, Georgians will be celebrating Orthodox Christmas, raising the possibility that tensions will ease before the opposition returns to the streets.

Nino Burdzhanadze, the parliament speaker who served as acting president during the campaign, expressed confidence that the opposition would not muster enough support for mass protests. "I think there will be no serious support for opposition rallies after a few days," she said.

She conceded there were some violations, but said her government welcomed the criticism from foreign observers and will seek to correct the mistakes in future elections.

"As a whole the elections were free and fair and democratic," Burdzhanadze told The Associated Press. "You should take into account that Georgia is a new democracy."

During his four years in office, Saakashvili, 40, has cracked down on organized crime and corruption, modernized the police force and the army, restored steady supplies of electricity and gas, and improved roads. The result has been annual economic growth of about 10 percent and a steady rise in foreign investment.

But he has been accused of being intolerant of dissent, and in the final days of the campaign, he made a point of reaching out to his opponents.

The OSCE report cited a blurring of government activities and Saakashvili's campaign, including the distribution of vouchers for utilities and medical supplies.

"The president has not behaved like a mature democrat and many feel that he bought votes with promises and benefits," Swedish observer Birgitta Ohlsson was quoted by the newspaper Dagens Nyheter as saying. "We regard this with anxiety."

The observers' report said there were cases of multiple voting, and that ballot counting was very slow in most polling stations they visited while basic procedures were often not followed.

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