( dpa ) - Georgian opposition leaders staged protest action Tuesday to demand a new round of voting, rejecting as fraudulent presidential elections that handed incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili a narrow victory. Georgia's electoral commission declared Saakashvili the victor of Saturday's poll with 52.01 per cent of the vote, a marked contrast to the soaring ratings of 98 per cent that carried him take office four years ago. Slightly more than 10 per cent of the vote was still to be counted Tuesday. Saakashvili's nearest challenger, opposition candidate Levan Ganchechiladze, gathered 24.98 per cent of the vote, according to the Central Election Commission's website Tuesday.
After breaking for Orthodox Christmas from mass demonstrations that drew thousands into the snowy streets Saturday, opposition protestors stormed Georgia's election commission's office and picket Rustavi-TV channel, accused of bias toward Saakashvili.
European election observers, however, gave the elections a clean bill of health, which was corroborated by the United States. Russia, which opposes Western influence in Georgia and has imposed economic sanctions on the nation, sharply criticized the vote. The mountainous Caucasus state, lying at the crossroads of oil and gas routes and close to Iraq, has become the site of a battle of influence between Moscow and Washington. Ganchechiladze, a entrepreneur and lawyer, claimed on Tuesday that based on the opposition's own polling results Saakashvili "won only 41 per cent," less than the 50-per-cent barrier required to prevent a run-off election.
The opposition candidate led a group of protestors that burst into the offices of the Central Elections Commission. Russian television showed him brandishing allegedly spoiled ballot papers and confronting election commission chief Levan Tarknishvili. "You're guilty of falsifying the election. You've stolen half a million votes. You've sneaked them from the Georgian people. Show the facts you're hiding," Ganchechiladze said. Tarknishvili called the accusations "groundless" and accused the opposition in turn of "falsification," according to news agency Interfax.
Hours later, Ganchechiladze picketed alongside about one hundred protesters in front of Georgia's Rustavi-TV station, which he accused of "biased election coverage."
One of Georgia's two most popular television stations, Rustavi-TV figured at the centre of controversy over alleged crackdowns by Saakashvili's government in November against its rival station Imedia, seen to favour the opposition. Ganchechiladze said he would picket the channel daily until he was allowed a voice on the air. Addressing himself to Saakashvili, Ganchechiladze said: "I was willing to sacrifice my life in order to defeat you. I won't stop until you murder me." The opposition planned hunger strikes and a series of other protest actions in the coming days, threatening prolonged instability in the nation once seen as a model of democratic reform.
It was unclear whether the opposition hold mass rallies as Georgia registered the most severe frosts of the past 15 years and temperatures plummeted to minus 25 degrees on Monday night. US-educated Saakashvili, 40, who was known for his reform initiatives, said "unruly behaviour by the opposition will not be tolerated, but peaceful rallies are one of the tools of political campaigning." Ganchechiladze's coalition claims Saakashvili, who came to power in 2003 after ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in the peaceful Rose Revolution, has too much power. He pledges to dilute the power of the president.
Analysts said Tuesday Saakashvili's narrow win has already weakened his position.