TBILISI – Georgian opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze has rejected the results of a presidential election won by the ruling party-backed candidate and called for protests.
"We do not recognize the election results, we demand to hold snap parliamentary polls," Vashadze said in televised remarks after ex-diplomat Salome Zurabishvili was declared the winner of the November 28 runoff.
He called for "a mass peaceful demonstration" in the capital Tbilisi on December 2 against the result.
International observers say Georgia’s presidential runoff won by Zurabishvili was “competitive” but that the ruling party-backed candidate “enjoyed an undue advantage.”
In a preliminary statement released on November 29, the monitors said the runoff was marred by "harsh rhetoric and isolated incidents of violence," as well as by "an increase in the misuse of state resources, further blurring the separation of party and state."
“The negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the [election] process," said the monitoring mission jointly undertaken by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, the European Parliament, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Earlier, the Central Election Commission said the French-born Zurabishvili, who has the backing of billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's ruling Georgian Dream party, won 59.52 percent after all the ballots from the November 28 runoff election were counted.
Vashadze, the candidate supported by opposition groups led by the United National Movement founded by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, received 40.48 percent, the election commission said on its website.
Turnout was more than 56 percent, around 9 percent higher than the first round.
Outgoing President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who did not seek a second term in the election, congratulated Zurabishvili for her victory but also expressed “concern" about the “sharp drop” of the democratic standards during the runoff.
Margareta Cederfelt, head of the international monitoring delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, said the Georgian people "once again expressed their commitment to democracy by actively participating in the electoral process."
"Regrettably, the increased use of harsh rhetoric in the campaign between the two rounds contributed to a rise in tension in the electoral environment," she added.
The election monitoring mission was jointly undertaken by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the European Parliament, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Zurabishvili -- the first woman to be elected president of a post-Soviet republic outside of the Baltics -- claimed victory after exit polls suggested she had won the election, thanking voters for making the "right and principled choice."
"We have finally and firmly rejected our past today, the past, which would most of all impede our society's strengthening, moving forward and salvation," she also said. "Our choice is peaceful Georgia, a free country, where citizens have equal rights."
Vashadze refused to concede defeat, saying he would wait for full preliminary results.
"Whatever the final results of the vote will be, we have reached the main goals, one of them is that united opposition was created, we will stay together and everything begins only now," he said.
Meanwhile, Saakashvili claimed "mass electoral fraud" and urged Georgians to "defend our freedom, democracy, and the law."
"I call on you to start mass peaceful rallies and demand snap parliamentary polls," he said in an address on the pro-opposition Rustavi-2 television channel.
Opposition groups claimed there had been various voting irregularities.
Transparency International Georgia said there were potential violations, including the presence of party members at polling stations and efforts to obstruct the work of election observers.
Both Zurabishvili and Vashadze are former foreign ministers of the South Caucasus country, which has warm ties with the United States and European Union. Relations with neighboring Russia remain tense following a five-day war in 2008.
Zurabishvili barely edged out Vashadze in an inconclusive first round in an election that international observers say was competitive but clouded by "an unlevel playing field" and private-media bias.
During the two-week runoff campaign, Transparency International said it had information that fake identification cards were being produced by the Public Service Development Agency to allow Zurabishvili voters to cast several ballots.
The Georgian Dream party has denied it had anything to do with the alleged wrongdoing.
An opinion poll by the U.S.-based company Edison Research gave Vashadze a 52 percent to 48 percent edge in the final days of a campaign marked by dirty tricks, mudslinging, and allegations of wrongdoing on both sides.
"This was an election that continued the Georgian tradition of vicious negative campaigning and was more about 'voting against' than 'voting for'," says Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calling the election "a grudge match" between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili.
Saakashvili became president in January 2004 after leading a bloodless revolution that forced Eduard Shevardnadze to step down in November 2003.
He served two five-year terms and gained a reputation as a pro-NATO and pro-Western leader.
But he was also criticized for his strong-arm tactics and allegations of electoral fraud sullied his reputation.
Ivanishvili, the country's richest man and the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party, ousted Saakashvili's United National Movement from power in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Georgian Dream has ruled since, though Ivanishvili stepped down as prime minister after just over a year in power.
In January, Saakashsvili was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison after being convicted of trying to cover up evidence about the 2006 killing of Georgian banker Sandro Girgvliani.
The former president, who now lives in the Netherlands, has rejected all the charges, calling them politically motivated.
Last Direct Vote
Both Zurabishvili and Vashadze espouse a pro-European foreign policy looking to deepen ties with NATO and the European Union.
But Vashadze has been critical of Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream's government, alleging it has meddled in the judiciary and has fostered corruption while failing to address poverty in the country.
While the president ensures adherence to the constitution by state bodies, the position's crucial function lies in foreign policy as the head of state is the main negotiator of international treaties and accords.
The president also appoints ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives.
The election was the last direct presidential vote before a new system of indirect voting takes effect.
In 2017, the constitution was amended so that future presidents would be elected by a 300-member College of Electors, comprising parliament deputies and local and regional political representatives.