Vote-rigging claim mars Georgia poll

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The Independent Online

Elections to parliament in the former Soviet republic of Georgia ended last night, as they began, in controversy ­ with polling stations in two Georgian cities kept open beyond the official closing time after protests about late opening.

Polling stations remained open for an extra hour in the capital Tbilisi and for an extra four hours, until midnight, in the second city, Kutaisi. Both are areas where the opposition to the President, Eduard Shevardnadze, was believed to be strong.

Allegations of vote rigging overshadowed the hotly contested parliamentary elections which could see the ruling party of President Shevardnadze ousted after 11 years in power.

The authorities were standing by for violent protests after the polls closed. Interior Ministry forces were sent to the city of Rustavi because of fears of election-related disorder. Earlier, locked polling stations provoked anger among some voters. Officials said that up to 15 per cent of polling stations had failed to open on time due to a shortage of ballot papers.

The elections were dogged by allegations of unfair campaign practices, as well as isolated acts of violence. Last week, the head of Georgia's external security department warned of a risk of "destabilisation" from unspecified foreign countries ­ a charge often levelled to explain embarrassing home-grown unrest.

The authorities also called on the Georgian media not to release results of exit polls before the result was announced. There were demonstrations in neighbouring Azerbaijan two weeks ago after elections in which Ilkham Aliyev, the son of the country's ailing leader, Geidar Aliyev, was declared the winner with a larger majority than had been suggested by exit polls.

An opposition victory would make Georgia the first of the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia to reject the leader it inherited from the Soviet era.

It would also spell the political demise of Mr Shevardnadze, the long-time head of the Georgian Communist Party and former Soviet foreign minister.