Georgian opposition vows to boycott parliament
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia's main opposition coalition vowed on Friday to boycott the nation's new parliament and hold street protests against an election it says was rigged to hand victory to President Mikheil Saakashvili's party.
The vote on Wednesday in Georgia, an ex-Soviet state on an important transit route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea, was viewed as a test for Saakashvili's democratic credentials as he seeks to take his country into NATO.
His allies in the United States and the European Union broadly welcomed the election, despite a report from Europe's main vote-monitoring body which said it only partly lived up to Georgia's democratic commitments.
"The opposition coalition refuses to work in the new parliament and will stay with its own people," opposition coalition leader Levan Gachechiladze told an improvised news briefing in front of the legislature's main entrance.
"We appeal to you and call on you to join our protest rally on May 26, Georgia's Independence Day."
With all the votes counted, Saakashvili's United National Movement party was expected to have two-thirds of the seats in parliament, enough for a constitutional majority.
The main opposition coalition finished a distant second.
"Our strategy will be (protests) in the streets, our strategy will be everywhere where we can fight," Georgia's ex-foreign minister Salome Zurabishvili who is an opposition coalition leader, told Reuters.
"We might create an alternative parliament."
Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili, meeting EU officials in Brussels, acknowledged the vote had not been perfect. "It would have been impossible to do (things) in a really perfect way in terms of all European standards."
"But then the core importance we attach to this election was that everything had been done ... by the government to ensure the elections would be free and fair," she said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was "encouraged by the peaceful conduct" of the election, "but also noted that many shortcomings remained to be addressed", his press service said in a statement.
"Mr Solana hoped the parliamentary majority would exercise its mandate with responsibility, notably by inviting all political forces to engage in dialogue," it said.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the distinction between the state and the ruling party was often blurred and that they had found cases of intimidation. But they said voters had been given the opportunity to express their political will.
Politicians in Brussels and Washington -- which are backing Tbilisi in a dispute with its neighbor Russia over two Georgian breakaway regions -- gave a more upbeat assessment.
"We've seen some comments by the observers, including those from the OSCE, that indicate that the elections, while having some procedural issues with them, did proceed in a positive manner," said U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
"We do think these elections are an improvement over the January presidential vote."
Previous elections have been followed by mass street protests but only a few thousand demonstrators turned out for an opposition rally in Tbilisi late on Wednesday.
"The opposition have been literally knocked out by losing the election," said Archil Gegeshidze, a political analyst at Georgia's Foundation for Strategic and International studies. "They will need time to recover from that condition."
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Susan Cornwell in Washington and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; writing by Christian Lowe and Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Elizabeth Piper)
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