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Georgia: Ruling Party Appears Decisive Winner Of Polls While Opposition Alleges Fraud

Georgian election authorities today released preliminary results of yesterday's parliamentary elections, which show that President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement-Democrats alliance is set to grab the vast majority of parliamentary seats attributed to deputies elected from party lists. International election observers say the vote marked continued progress toward democratic reforms, but mainstream opposition groups claim the vote was stolen.

Prague, 29 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Preliminary results released today by Georgia's Central Election Commission (CEC) show that the ruling coalition led by President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement-Democrats bloc is set to grab almost all of the parliamentary seats open for competition.

Partial returns released by midday today indicate that, with 9 percent of the ballots counted, the National Movement-Democrats won more than 76 percent of the votes in yesterday's partial parliamentary rerun. Of the remaining 15 parties or coalitions vying for seats, only the coalition formed by the New Rightists Party and the Union of Industrialists looks set to overcome the 7 percent vote barrier required to enter the legislature.

The CEC is expected to release additional results later today. Election officials say an estimated 68 percent of voters took part in the polls.

Following last November's disputed elections, which led to the resignation of then President Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia's Supreme Court invalidated the mandate of those 150 lawmakers elected from party lists under a proportional system. But, for reasons that are still unclear, the court ruled that most of the 85 deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies -- known as majoritarian lawmakers -- could retain their seats in the parliament.

International election observers today said yesterday’s election marked a substantial improvement compared to last year's disputed polls. A statement released by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says the polls "demonstrated commendable progress in relation to previous elections."

"There are two solutions. Either they will disarm themselves, or I will disarm them. The second solution will be very painful for them."
But Georgia's mainstream opposition parties are claiming widespread election fraud.

Revising down by half an earlier claim, the left-wing Labor Party -- which according to preliminary official results garnered only 5.4 percent of the vote -- maintains that it won the support of at least 15 percent of Georgian voters.

The Labor Party accuses Saakashvili and his government of buying votes. "The elections were as widely falsified as those of 2 November [2003]. In fact, nothing has changed in the country," Labor Party spokesman Gela Danelia told reporters last night.

Fraud claims were also put forward by the National Democratic Party-Union of Traditionalists coalition which, according to partial returns, garnered 2.4 percent of the vote. Even the New Rightists-Industrialists bloc maintains that the election was unfair and says it won at least 9 percent of the votes.

Both groups say they will appeal to the country's highest courts. Dozens of Labor Party activists picketed the CEC building today, demanding a recount. Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili has called for further peaceful protests later today.

Citing fraud concerns, three small opposition parties withdrew less than 48 hours before the vote.

Matyas Eorsi, a Hungarian parliamentarian who heads the Council of Europe's election observation mission in Georgia, has refrained from commenting on specific fraud claims, saying only that the elections "went better than previous ones."

CEC Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili yesterday said observers noted a few irregularities in some polling stations but had collected no evidence that could sustain claims of overall falsification. "The election went normally, and we haven't noted any particular gross violation that could have an influence on the final outcome of the polls," he said.

Saakashvili yesterday rejected the fraud claims, saying the elections were "the fairest and most democratic" Georgia has had in 10 years. He also said the expected results reflect the state of play in the South Caucasus country four months after Shevardnadze was ousted. "I regret that the opposition is not more represented in parliament. Greater representation would have also helped consolidate my own party," he said. "But this is a reality. This is the postrevolutionary reality."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) had recommended that Georgia's parliamentary vote barrier be lowered to 4 percent or 5 percent to avert the risk of a legislature overwhelmingly dominated by the ruling party by allowing more antigovernment groups to win seats. But Saakashvili has said the majority of majoritarian deputies elected last November already constitutes an opposition to his government.

He reiterated similar views at a press conference today in Tbilisi. "Of the 75 deputies already elected, nearly 50 represent the opposition. They include people who support former President Shevardnadze, members of the New Rightists party, and members of the [Union of] Traditionalists," he said.

Hungarian parliamentarian Eorsi reiterated criticism of Saakashvili's government for failing to lower the vote barrier.

But outgoing parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze -- who is a member of the ruling coalition -- dismissed Eorsi's concerns that the next legislature might offer no counterweight to the government. "I am happy that the [next] parliament will not be a one-party parliament and that, according to our latest data, the New Rightists and the Industrialists managed to overcome the vote barrier," she said. "Therefore, I hope the new parliament will be absolutely normal and of better quality [than the previous one]."

The Georgian president and his allies already control all government portfolios. In addition, a constitutional reform voted last month gave Saakashvili -- who succeeded Shevardnadze in January in a plebescite-like election -- the upper hand over the judiciary, raising concerns among rights groups and opposition parties.

Mamuka Katsitadze, a representative of the New Rightists-Industrialists coalition, yesterday described the elections as a "farce" and accused the government of diverting the attention of voters to the situation in the unruly autonomous republic of Adjaria to "better manipulate the vote."

Saakashvili, who has vowed to restore the authority of the central government over Adjaria, had made no secret that he was looking at yesterday's elections as the first step toward a change of regime in the Black Sea province.

Preliminary results suggest the Democratic Revival Union, the party that supports Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze, won less than 1 percent of the vote. Yet, CEC Chairman Chiaberashvili said at a midday press conference today that votes from Adjaria have not been counted yet.

In addition, a parallel count made by the Tbilisi-based Society for Free Elections and Democracy nongovernmental group indicates the Democratic Revival Union may have garnered more than 6.5 percent of the vote at the national level. The group also says Abashidze's party apparently won nearly 48 percent of the votes in Adjaria, ahead of Saakashvili's National Movement.

The Democratic Revival Union had always had a large number of seats in the national parliament, thus offering Abashidze substantial leverage on the policies of the Georgian government. Abashidze's opponents claim this situation was largely the result of widespread election fraud in the region, which generally gave the Adjar leader at least 90 percent support.

Fearing Adjar authorities might attempt to disrupt the elections, Saakashvili had dispatched Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania to monitor the polls in Batumi, the region's capital. Zhvania, who had a three-hour overnight meeting with Abashidze, today said he had noted no widespread violations during his observation mission.

While making a similar assessment, Saakashvili today warned the Adjar leader that he will no longer tolerate the region's failure to recognize the authority of the central government. Among other grievances, the Georgian president blames the Adjar authorities for not meeting their financial obligations toward the central budget. He also demands that Abashidze disarm the popular militias he set up at the peak of this month's crisis, when Georgia imposed economic sanctions on the province.

"There are two solutions," Saakashvili said. "Either they will disarm themselves, or I will disarm them. The second solution will be very painful for them."

Abashidze today sent a conciliatory note to his rival, saying the polls "should not serve as a pretext for a new escalation of tension" between Batumi and Tbilisi. The Adjar leader also said the elections were "significant, but not decisive." He did not elaborate on his next steps.

As a gesture of defiance toward Georgia's new rulers, Abashidze decreed a state of emergency after Shevardnadze's resignation last November. He suspended it for the duration of yesterday's vote but is expected to reintroduce it later today.

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