- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia (Agence France-Presse) — Georgia’s pro-Western leader Mikhail Saakashvili won a dramatic victory in a snap presidential vote, the elections commission chief said yesterday.

The opposition, however, refused to accept official results and demanded a second round of voting.

Mr. Saakashvili had 52.8 percent of the vote with all ballots counted except for those in 43 precincts abroad, out of a total of about 3,500, the Central Elections Commission chief, Levan Tarkhnishvili, told Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Saakashvili needed to cross a 50 percent barrier to win in a single round.

His nearest rival was Levan Gachechiladze with 27 percent, the elections official said.

The announcement was surprising because it appeared to show that more than half of the results in Saturday’s election flooded in within just one hour, after having trickled in for a whole day.

At the time of the announcement, the official election Web site still showed results based on votes in fewer than 50 percent of precincts having been counted.

“We don’t believe their figures. We don’t believe this. We have our own information,” Tamara Rukhadze, a spokeswoman for Mr. Gachechiladze, told Agence France-Presse.

“We demand a second round because we believe that would be fair.”

Mr. Gachechiladze earlier yesterday led a rally of several thousand people in this snow-covered capital to denounce what he said was mass fraud.

He claimed he won and accused Mr. Saakashvili’s camp of ballot stuffing, stealing ballot boxes, and sending supporters to vote multiple times.

“We face terror,” he told the rally. “We will defend our vote by legal means.”

The bitter outcome is the opposite of what Mr. Saakashvili was wanting when he called the snap election after violent clashes between police and anti-government protesters in November.

The main international monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) declared Saturday’s election free and fair.

The OSCE mission head, U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, Florida Democrat, told journalists that “democracy took a triumphant step” and described the vote as “a valid expression of the choice of the Georgian people.”

This finding was dismissed by Moscow, which is bitterly against Mr. Saakashvili’s drive to remove Georgia from Russia’s orbit and integrate with NATO and other Western institutions.

Mr. Hastings’ comments “seem, at the least, superficial,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

The opposition call for protests sparked fears of a repeat of the violent unrest in November.

Protesters carried placards depicting Mr. Saakashvili as Adolf Hitler. However, the rally on Rike Square was peaceful and police kept their distance.

Protest leaders said more rallies will be held after the Orthodox Christian Christmas, celebrated today.

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