TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili hailed his election win as a triumph for democracy on Monday but his defeated opponent said it was rigged and was gearing up to hold mass protests in the capital.
Saakashvili received valuable endorsements when the United States followed the European Union and NATO — two blocs the pro-Western leader wants Georgia to join — in giving Saturday’s presidential election a qualified welcome.
Western governments hope to avoid turbulence in Georgia because it lies on the route of a pipeline which will soon pump 1 million barrels of oil a day to world markets and it is the scene of a tussle for influence between Russia and the West.
Election chiefs said the Georgian leader had won just over 50 percent of the vote. That was about twice the support of his nearest rival, opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze, and just enough to avoid a second round run-off.
But the mandate for his second term is smaller than when he was first elected, signaling disillusionment with the man who had been a hero four years ago when he ousted his discredited predecessor in what was dubbed the “Rose Revolution”.
Speaking in an interview with Reuters, Saakashvili said Georgia’s fledgling democracy had passed its toughest test yet.
“We can have free and fair elections, good elections, clean elections and with basically a very competitive environment. It (the result) could have gone the other way around,” he said.
“From that point of view it’s an achievement ... Political process prevailed over street passions.”
Gachechiladze and his supporters plan to gather for a protest in Tbilisi on Tuesday and they say they will stay on the streets until the election is annulled.
They said Saakashvili used his position as incumbent to skew the vote in his favor, that opposition supporters were intimidated on polling day and the count was fraudulent. Some ballots were still being counted late on Monday.
In November, opposition protests against Saakashvili’s rule gathered 100,000 people at their peak. He sent in riot police with tear gas and rubber bullets, doing damage to his democratic credentials that he is trying to repair.
“Clearly some of the opposition want to protest,” a Western diplomat said. “It could be a bumpy ride.”
The United States praised the vote, but it urged the Georgian government to investigate voting irregularities highlighted by a team of international observers.
“We congratulate the people of Georgia,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement. “We agree ... that this was the first genuinely competitive presidential election in Georgia.”
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called the vote “truly competitive”, and a NATO spokesman echoed a report by Western observers that the election was broadly fair.
Western diplomats used to classify Georgia as a “failed state”. Under Saakashvili, a 40-year-old lawyer trained in the United States, it has a functioning government, annual economic growth is in double digits and foreign investment is booming.
But while the West has lauded his reforms, large sections of the 4.5 million population say that they have not felt the benefits and that Saakashvili shows scorn for democratic freedoms and the rights of ordinary people.
His opponents do not though dispute his pro-Western stance, which has led to hostile relations with Russia.
Georgia will hold a parliamentary election later this year and analysts say Saakashvili’s party could lose its majority.
Saakashvili said his program of liberal economic reforms would continue but acknowledged his administration needed to listen more. “We should become more inclusive,” he said.
Additional reporting by Washington and Brussels bureaus and Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Elizabeth Piper