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Georgia: Saakashvili Vows To Lead Nation From Corruption To Peace, Prosperity

Though results from Georgia's presidential elections yesterday are still only starting to come in, but that hasn't stopped supporters of favorite Mikheil Saakashvili from declaring him the victor.

Prague, 5 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Preliminary results of Georgia's presidential elections are only now starting to come in, but supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili are already celebrating.

The Central Election Commission says that with ballots counted from 1 percent of polling places, Saakashvili has won 95 percent of the vote. Exit polls from yesterday's vote show that Saakashvili, the charismatic opposition leader who spearheaded the campaign for former President Eduard Shevardnadze's resignation in November 2003, defeated five rival challengers with some 85 percent of the vote.

The results confirm predictions made earlier by observers both in Georgia and abroad that Saakashvili would win by a considerable margin.

Saakashvili, who declared victory after the polls closed, said voters had given him a mandate to fight corruption and lead Georgia to peace and prosperity. He said there are many problems to be resolved, but said Georgia can be rebuilt and that it will embark on a democratic path.

"I am very excited. I have a heavy burden on my shoulders now. But if we stand together, Georgia will be saved, Georgia will flourish, Georgia will survive. We all are proud of our country, and we will be 10 times more proud," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili now faces the Herculean task of delivering on at least some of his pre-election promises to crack down on corruption, raise living standards, restore the central government's control over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and improve relations with Russia.

Georgia's economy is also moribund, with large parts of the country's industry barely functioning at all and unemployment at more than 80 percent. The infrastructure is in a decrepit state, and corruption and criminality are rife.

Despite earlier concern expressed by Saakashvili and his supporters that there would be low voter turnout, Central Election Commission chief Zurab Chiaberashvili today said 83 percent of voters had cast ballots, well over the required 50 percent turnout needed to validate the election.

Speaking yesterday regarding the turnout, Saakashvili said it was "unusually high. I am quite amazed how many people showed up at the polling stations. And this is really absolutely unparalleled in our history. People are longing for a better future. That is something which should be appreciated by the new president and the new government."

There were reports of some minor violations during the voting, but some 500 international observers have so far reported no major irregularities.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent about 400 election observers. Craig Jennes, head of the OSCE's mission, said final monitoring reports will be coming in today. "We have about 400 short-term observers who are all around the country and who are visiting about 10 stations each. And they fill in these forms and then they are put together overnight." He said by later today, "we'll have a final picture of what has been seen at the opening of the [polling] stations, during voting, at the closure and then at the counting and tabulation of the results," Jennes said.

Election chief Chiaberashvili had earlier stressed that the authorities would do everything in their power to see that the voting would be free of the accusations of manipulation that characterized elections under Shevardnadze.

International reaction to the Georgian election included a statement by veteran Armenian opposition politician Vazgen Manukyan, a former prime minister and outspoken critic of the current government in Yerevan.

"I can only congratulate Saakashvili and the Georgian people that they finally have a legitimate president and government, backed by the majority of the people," Manukyan said.

Manukyan narrowly lost to incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian in a 1996 election that one of Ter-Petrossian's close associates later admitted was rigged.

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