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Georgia: Opposition Disputes President's Claim Of Party Victory

Opposition supporters turned out to protest in Tbilisi soon after polls closed on May 21 (epa) Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been quoted as saying that his United National Movement is poised to win two-thirds of the 150 seats that were up for grabs in the May 21 parliamentary elections, but the main opposition bloc is already calling for the results to be overturned and new elections held.

Meanwhile, the International Election Monitoring Mission -- while noting Tbilisi's efforts to conduct the elections in line with international standards -- identified a number of problems that "made their implementation uneven and incomplete." Voting was assessed positively, but significant shortcomings were recorded in the vote-counting and tabulation process.

Partial results released by the Central Election Commission less than 24 hours after the polling show Saakashvili's United National Movement winning 63.3 percent of the vote. The United Opposition bloc is a distant second, according to those figures, with 13.2 percent. The first official results are expected to be announced on May 23.

"Even I was astonished by the big level of support which we got in these parliamentary elections," Saakashvili told Reuters news agency as early returns came in. "There are no final figures yet, but there is a very high probability that the National Movement will get the number of seats in parliament that would be close to a constitutional majority."

Such a majority would require two-thirds of the legislative seats, half of which will be allocated on a proportional basis to parties clearing the 5 percent barrier and the other half in single-mandate contests.

David Bakradze, a former foreign minister who is expected to be the United National Movement's candidate for parliament speaker, said after the results of the first exit polls came in that his party's "reaction is positive."

"The gap between [the United] National Movement and our nearest competitor -- this gap clearly shows that the National Movement enjoys the support from the majority of [the] Georgian population," Bakradze told Reuters.

The opposition wasted little time, however, before seeking to counter any notion that the ruling party had won the contest. An estimated 3,000-5,000 opposition supporters attended a rally in Tbilisi just after polls closed and overnight to express their belief that they were the true victors, although their numbers fell short of expectations.

Before the rally, the opposition had said more than 10,000 would turn out to protest the vote results.

David Gamkrelidze, a leader of the nine-party United Opposition bloc, told Reuters within hours of the polls closing that initial exit polls didn't reflect "reality."

"The exit poll will show only the will of the government, the will of the ruling party, and the will of Saakashvili," Gamkrelidze said. "The reality is totally different, and the reality is quite clear for me as, I mentioned. They are losers. They lost this day, lost the power."

Accusing the authorities of rigging the vote, Gamkrelidze has called for the results to be canceled and new elections to be held.

International Assessment Mixed

In a preliminary statement issued on May 22, the International Election Monitoring Mission said that while "parties were able to campaign actively" throughout the country, "there were numerous allegations of intimidation, some of which could be verified."

The mission -- which is a joint undertaking of OSCE/ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly -- also said that "the distinction between state activities and the government party's campaign was often blurred."

And while stating that the election administration worked in a transparent manner, the preliminary assessment said that "election commissions and courts generally did not give due consideration to complaints."

Joao Soares, special coordinator of the OSCE short-term observers and head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation, admitted that "these elections were not perfect." But he said that "substantial progress" had been made since the country's snap presidential election in January.

Those elections, which President Saakashvili won in the first round by a slim margin, were roundly criticized. As a result of the fallout, Saakashvili pledged to run a more open government, work more closely with the opposition, and pay greater attention to citizens' needs.

And NATO, which in December is to revisit the issue of handing Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) toward eventual membership, has said that a positive decision would depend largely on the success of the parliamentary elections.

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on May 22 that the United States is "pleased to see that the elections in general proceeded in a positive manner." The OSCE/ODIHR will issue its final report, including recommendations for potential improvements, in about two months.

According to early results released by the Central Election Commission based on about one-quarter of the ballots, two additional parties had garnered enough votes to gain parliamentary representation.

The Christian Democratic Movement, which broke from the second-place United Opposition bloc in February to contest the elections on their own, had 8.2 percent of the vote. In fourth place was the Labor Party, with 6.2 percent.

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