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Georgia: Opposition Leads In Polls Despite Strong Showing Of Pro-Government Bloc

Preliminary results from yesterday's parliamentary election in Georgia show the opposition leading the vote. However, President Eduard Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia coalition has garnered more than one-quarter of the votes counted so far -- the most of any single party but less than the total taken by its rivals.

Prague, 3 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Preliminary results released by Georgia's Central Election Commission (CEC) show President Eduard Shevardnadze's coalition has taken more than 23 percent of the vote in yesterday's parliamentary polls, amid claims by the opposition of vote rigging.

With less than one-quarter of the votes counted, returns indicate the pro-government For a New Georgia is immediately followed by the National Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP), the opposition party led by Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili.

Three other opposition groups -- the leftist Labor Party, the coalition led by parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and the pro-business New Rightists party -- have also crossed the 7 percent barrier required to enter parliament.

The Democratic Revival Union of Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze -- which is technically in the opposition but has cooperated with Shevardnadze in the past -- also looks set to enter parliament. Observers note Revival's final tally may significantly improve after votes are counted in the autonomous republic of Adjaria, Abashidze's traditional power base.

The election is particularly important for Shevardnadze, since it constitutes the first step in the transition to a new rule after his mandate expires in 2005 after 11 years in office. It is equally crucial for the opposition, which sees it as part of its efforts to drive the ruling team from power.

Talking to journalists today, CEC Chairwoman Nana Devdariani confirmed the preliminary results but warned that figures might change in the coming hours. "Indicators have changed since last night," she said. "The figures have changed, but not the overall balance of forces. There could be serious changes in figures as we get results from polling stations. [Preliminary results show] For a New Georgia comes first, Saakashvili's coalition comes second, the Labor Party comes third, the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition comes fourth, and the New Rightists comes fifth. How far or close these parties are from the 7 percent barrier, I cannot say for the moment. This will be clarified when we get data from all polling stations."

Twenty-two parties are competing for seats in the 235-member legislature, where more than half of lawmakers are elected on party lists under a proportional system.

Returns available at 11 a.m. (Prague time) today show EMDP garnered more than 22 percent of the votes, the Labor Party nearly 16 percent, the Burdjanadze-Democrats coalition 10 percent, New Rightists 8.5 percent, and Revival Union 8.2 percent.

The strong showing of For a New Georgia came as a surprise to most Georgian pollsters and political analysts, who had predicted the pro-government alliance would cross the 7 percent barrier by only a narrow margin. Regional experts had believed Shevardnadze's approval rating was at a record low amid continuing economic hardship and over the failure to settle decade-long conflicts with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The results also contradict an exit poll conducted yesterday by the U.S. Global Strategy Group research institute that showed EMDP leading the poll and the pro-Shevardnadze alliance coming in second with only 13 percent of the vote. Pollsters, however, warned the results should be treated with caution since nearly one-quarter of respondents refused to say whom they had voted for. By contrast, a second exit poll conducted by the Moscow-based Niccolo M company put Shevardnadze's bloc in the lead.

Even before polling stations closed yesterday, Saakashvili claimed victory and threatened the government with street protests if massive voting irregularities are not documented. In comments broadcast on Georgia's Rustavi-2 private television channel, Saakashvili called on the government to "accept its defeat."

Burdjanadze also challenged the legality of the voting yesterday, saying her alliance had garnered more votes than the pro-government alliance and any other opposition group.

In his traditional radio interview today, Shevardnadze dismissed allegations of vote fraud. He described yesterday's polls as the most democratic since Georgia regained independence in 1991. "What has been positive in this election is its unprecedented transparency, a high level of civic control and a massive involvement of mass media," he said. "Mass media have contributed to making this election a success."

The Georgian leader went on to say the next legislature will better reflect the balance of political forces in Georgia than its predecessor. "One can already say that the next parliament will more or less represent the entire political spectrum of Georgia," he said. "The multifaceted character of the next legislature and the large number of professional deputies who will hold seats in it give us grounds to say that a lot more attention will be devoted to lawmaking."

Yesterday's polls were characterized by an unexpectedly low voter turnout. Georgian political analysts and polling institutes had predicted a turnout close to 75 percent, but only half of registered voters cast their ballots in the end.

The poll was disrupted by a number of irregularities linked mostly to incomplete voter lists. The pro-opposition Rustavi-2 television channel yesterday reported attacks on polling stations in the cities of Tkibuli and Rustavi and attempts at intimidating voters.

The CEC annulled the vote in 17 of Georgia's 2,600 polling stations. CEC Chairwoman Devdariani, however, said the election could still be considered valid.

In a statement released today in Tbilisi, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that despite improvements in the Election Code and increased transparency in the work of election commissions, the polls "fell short of a number of international standards."

Observers said they noted numerous irregularities and called on Georgian authorities to make sure the counting, tabulation, and appeals process goes unhindered as a step "crucial to building public confidence."

"These elections have, regrettably, been insufficient to enhance the credibility of either the electoral or the democratic process," the statement quoted OSCE mission head Bruce George as saying.