The Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has won a snap presidential election in the former Soviet republic, which international monitors said they judged to be fair. He gained 52.8 per cent of the vote, election officials said. Less than 50 per cent would have forced him into a second-round run-off vote.
"Georgia has proved that it can hold free, democratic, transparent and really fair elections," Mr Saakashvili said. "It was the most free and competitive election in the history of Georgia." But the public response was very different to the overwhelming and jubilant support for the US-backed Mr Saakashvili when he was first elected in 2004, after the Rose Revolution and with 97 per cent of the vote. His popularity has slipped over recent months as the economic situation in Georgia continued to be tough, and riot police brutally dispersed opposition protesters last autumn.
The protests resumed yesterday, this time peacefully, as around 8,000 opposition supporters gathered in freezing weather in central Tbilisi to protest against the polls and sing chants of "Georgia without Saakashvili".
The main opposition challenger was Levan Gachechiladze, who only gained about 26 per cent of the vote. He called on supporters to take to the streets in protest again tomorrow. Today is the Orthodox Christmas and demonstrations are unlikely. Mr Gachechiladze had earlier accused the authorities of using "dirt and terror" against opposition forces, and remained adamant that the vote was unfair.
Badri Patarkatsishvili, the charismatic and controversial mustachioed billionaire, who is based in London, came in third place with 7 per cent of the vote, and three other candidates also gained single-figure percentages.
Tina Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, said she had "concrete evidence that on many occasions and in many places there have been serious violations".
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's poll monitoring arm, which had expressed some concerns before the vote, said that it was by-and-large satisfied that the election was "a viable expression of the free choice of the Georgian people".
But observers also said there were serious shortcomings, with the campaign skewed in Mr Saakashvili's favour.
Analysts said that Mr Saakashvili was likely to emerge weakened from the election.
"He won't be as radical as he was previously," said Archil Gegeshidze, senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. "The pace of economic reforms will slow down."
Russia's Foreign Ministry said the vote had been marred by "blatant pressure" on the opposition and called the observers' report "hasty" and "superficial".
Moscow's view is unlikely to influence developments in Georgia, as most of the opposition there treat Russia with suspicion and back Mr Saakashvili's pro-Western policies.
Georgia lies on the route of a major pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and is the scene of a tussle for influence between Russia and the United States.
Mr Saakashvili called the early election to demonstrate his commitment to democratic principles after he shocked his Western allies by ordering police to use tear gas to break up huge opposition protests in November.Reuse content