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Saakashvili Leads As Georgian Opposition Protests Results

Georgian opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze at his Tbilisi office today (AFP) Opposition activists gathered in the center of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on January 6 to protest what they say are falsified results from the previous day's presidential election that give a first-round victory to Mikheil Saakashvili.

With nearly all of the votes counted, the Central Election Commission reported that Saakashvili was leading with 52.8 percent of the vote. His main challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, reportedly had 27 percent.

Central Election Commission chief Levan Tarkhnishvili said that the remaining 43 precincts that still needed to be counted -- out of nearly 3,500 -- were not enough to significantly change the outcome and that Saakashvili would win a majority and thus avoid a runoff.

The early election was seen as a test of democracy in the former Soviet republic after opposition protests in November were violently suppressed by the government.

Protesters Gather

RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported that a few thousand opposition supporters gathered in Rike Square in central Tbilisi to protest the results, which they said they will not accept.

The protest was called by Gachechiladze, who on January 5 claimed his team had recorded numerous electoral violations around the country and that suggestions by Saakashvili that he was anticipating an easy win were premature. He did not give details about the alleged violations.

"Saakashvili has started to celebrate his victory in advance to cheat people," Gachechiladze said. The authorities have denied allegations of fraud.

Election observers representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the European Parliament said at a press conference that Georgia's presidential election met most international standards but had some shortcomings. OSCE observers said in their report that the poll was "in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections." But they also said the poll revealed "significant challenges" which "need to be addressed urgently."

Saakashvili, however, was quick to express confidence he would win. As early as the evening of January 5, he was already looking ahead to a second term.

"I am going to work with everybody and I am going to fight for the unification of Georgia with everybody and to work with all patriotic forces of Georgia, together with those who agreed and with those who disagreed with us, together with those who voted for us and with those who did not vote for us," Saakashvili said. "We face the same big tasks and actually we should finally win together and we will win together. This victory will be our common victory," he added.

Turnout in the vote was nearly 60 percent.

Election Commission head Tarkhnishvili said heavy snowfall across the mountainous country had slowed the process of tallying the official results.

Meanwhile, Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, called for calm. Speaking in Washington on January 6, he urged Georgians to respect the election results if international observers deem the vote was conducted fairly.

Vote Of Confidence?

The vote is seen by many as a referendum on Saakashvili and democratic standards in Georgia. Saakashvili was elected to the presidency in 2004 after the Rose Revolution thrust him into power.

But in November 2007, he cut short his five-year term and ordered the early poll after police violently dispersed antigovernment protesters. The president also imposed a state of emergency that included bans on independent television news broadcasts.

Saakashvili's first term as president saw Georgia strengthen its ties with NATO and the European Union. But the Georgian opposition has accused Saakashvili of neglecting social conditions and other domestic issues in his eagerness to integrate with the West.

Along with the presidential election, Georgians were asked in a nonbinding plebiscite to vote on whether the country should join NATO, and whether parliamentary elections should be held in the spring or fall.

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