Shevardnadze set to win Georgia election

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Both sides claimed victory in the Georgian parliamentary elections yesterday, as the count continued late into the second evening. With less than a third of the votes counted, the bloc of parties backing President Eduard Shevardnadze looked set to retain power, but with a smaller majority.

Election officials said Mr Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia! bloc had taken 24.7 percent of the 27 percent of votes counted so far - making it the largest single party, but it looked set to have fewer members in the new parliament than the total of opposition deputies.

The five other parties that got the 7 per cent needed to win seats were all critical of Mr Shevardnadze, who has led Georgia since it regained its independence in 1992.

The election was expected to produce a large protest vote against Mr Shevardnadze, who is blamed for the stagnation of Georgia's economy and stalled political reforms. Mr Shevardnadze, now 76, was Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister in the last years of the Soviet Union. Now completing his second term, he must make way for a successor in 2005.

The elections, which took place on Sunday, were marred by allegations of dubious voting practices and it was not clear whether the result would be acceptable to the many international observers. The Russian foreign ministry said it would consider the observers' report before deciding on its response.

Many polling stations opened late, and a few failed to open at all. Some electoral registers turned out to be incomplete and some voters were told that they had not registered.

Others were reported to have been ferried from polling station to polling station in police buses to cast multiple votes.

Voting was extended by one hour in the capital, Tbilisi, and by four hours in the republic's second city, Kutaisi.