- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia - Partial returns today and an exit poll showed President Mikhail Saakashvili’s ruling party heading for a strong majority in Georgia’s parliamentary election, drawing a challenge from his opponents.

A dispute over results could set the stage for another round of political squabbling that has spilled into Tbilisi’s streets repeatedly over the past year, but a late-night opposition rally fizzled.

The elections “were free and fair and I hope international observers will confirm that. But the most amazing thing is the landslide victory for the government party,” Mr. Saakashvili told reporters in the western city of Zugdidi, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Basically we got what amounts to a constitutional majority,” he said, adding he would honor his campaign pledge to not to make constitutional changes without the participation of the opposition.

The election was seen as a test of the pro-Western leader’s commitment to democracy, crucial to his aim of bringing the former Soviet republic into NATO.

Returns from 214 of about 3,500 polling precincts gave Mr. Saakashvili’s United National Movement more than 61 percent of the vote by party list, the Central Election Commission said on its Web site hours before dawn today.

The main United Opposition bloc was a distant second with more than 14 percent, it said.

The preliminary numbers were roughly in line with exit-poll results released after polls closed yesterday. Mr. Saakashvili’s opponents rejected those findings, accused the authorities of widespread violations and vowed to contest the official results.

Opposition leaders, who were unable to keep up the momentum of protests claiming fraud after Mr. Saakashvili’s re-election in January, had been hoping for a much larger crowd.

United Opposition co-leader David Gamkrelidze alleged widespread cheating and pressure on opponents by authorities in areas outside Tbilisi, the capital.

“There was total falsification, especially in the regions,” he said by telephone. “According to our data, the picture is totally different.”

Mr. Saakashvili’s opponents accuse him of sacrificing democracy and human rights for the sake of holding on to power.

He was elected by a landslide after leading the Rose Revolution in 2003, a mass protest over allegations of widespread fraud in an election for Parliament, but his popularity has faded amid persistent poverty and accusations of authoritarianism.

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