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Saakashvili Allies Appear To Win Elections

Tbilisi, 28 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The polls are now closed in Georgia's parliamentary election and the first unofficial exit polls show Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's allies gaining a sweeping victory.

Official results are not expected until tomorrow, but an exit poll by Rustavi-2 television shows Saakashvili's National Movement-Democratic Front bloc with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

If those numbers hold, it is possible that Saakashvili's allies could win all 150 parliamentary seats being contested. The legislature's other 85 seats were not contested in this vote.

Today's election is a rerun of the vote in November, which sparked large protests because of alleged vote rigging that brought about the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili was elected president in January by a wide margin.

A Council of Europe election observer from Switzerland, Andreas Gross, predicted a big win for Saakashvili's supporters earlier in the day. As voting began, Gross said that the so-called Rose Revolution that ended Shevardnadze's presidency has been a unifying force among the pro-Saakashvili candidates.

"I'm not sure if it is really a competition [in the election] because those who made the revolution are still together, and I'm sure that, in two or three years, they will differentiate themselves also. But, I think it's an important election for the legitimacy of the new power," Gross said.

Voting appeared to go well in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. But there are reports of problems in Georgia's autonomous region of Adjaria, 400 kilometers to the west. The head of Georgia's Central Election Commission, Zurab Chiaberashvili, says there have been attacks on polling stations in Adjaria. He did not give details on what kind of attacks, but did say they could potentially invalidate the voting in the region.

Adjaria has been a great source of concern for Saakashvili in the period before the election. He tried to visit the region earlier this month and was blocked at the administrative border. After imposing economic sanctions, Saakashvili finally met with Adjar leader, Aslan Abashidze, who promised that today's election would be free and fair.

But Saakashvili told reporters today that he worried about the potential for violence in Adjaria. "We hope we can avoid electoral violence there," he said. "We have avoided violence in other parts of Georgia throughout the election campaign, and I hope that the violence that was there [in Adjaria] during the pre-election campaign will not be repeated on election day."

Later, Abashidze's opponents in Adjaria reported cases of police beating up opposition activists and intimidating voters. These reports have yet to be confirmed.

As a precaution against trouble, Saakashvili sent his prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, to Adjaria to monitor the voting. Zhvania discussed the Adjaria situation with reporters before leaving Tbilisi.

"It is most important for us to have calm and normal elections, not just in the regions of Georgia, but also in the autonomous republic of Adjaria. I am literally going straight to the airport to fly to Adjaria with a couple of my colleagues and I will stay there all day today," Zhvania said.

Abashidze has refused to disarm local militias that are under his control and he has been accused of manipulating elections in the past. But last week, he agreed to let rival politicians campaign in the autonomous republic, where he exercises strong control.

Today, Abashidze spoke conciliatory words to journalists after he voted in the Adjar capital of Batumi. "[I voted] for peace, stability, and human rights in Georgia," he said.

Fourteen parties and five alliances are competing in the Georgian parliamentary election. But it is still not clear whether any of these parties will win the minimum 7 percent of the vote needed to enter the parliament. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked that the threshold be lowered to 4 percent-5 percent, but Georgian leaders refused.

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