TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili beat his opponents in a snap presidential election, early results showed on Sunday, but he faced the prospect of a potentially risky second round run-off.
With about a quarter of the vote counted, Saakashvili, who swept to power in a bloodless revolution in 2003, had 48.55 percent of the vote, just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright in the first round.
After an exit poll and initial results had pointed to a first-round win, thousands of protesters gathered in the capital to accuse Saakashvili of rigging the vote.
Western observers said the election was broadly fair, making it harder for the opposition to challenge the result, and the United States urged them to respect the observers’ verdict.
Georgia lies on the route of a major pipeline pumping oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and is the scene of a tussle for regional influence between Russia and the United States.
Saakashvili called the early election to try to rebuild his tattered democratic credentials. He shocked his Western allies by ordering police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in November.
“I perceive this election as a viable expression of the free choice of the Georgian people, but the future holds immense challenges,” said Alcee L. Hastings, a leader of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) observer mission.
The result represents a huge drop in popularity for 40-year-old Saakashvili, who enjoyed the support of about 90 percent of the population when he was elected to his first term.
His critics say his reforms — lauded by the West — have ignored the poor, and they say he is an autocrat who pays lip service to democratic freedoms. The opposition however broadly supports his pro-Western stance.
If there is a runoff, it would take place on January 19 and Saakashvili would likely face Levan Gachechiladze, who according to the incomplete vote count was in second place with 26.12 percent of the vote.
A run-off would be risky for Saakashvili because his opponent is likely to pick up votes from other opposition candidates eliminated in the first round.
The OSCE report said the election was the first truly competitive contest since Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Past elections in Georgia have either been completely one-sided or deemed unfair.
But observers also said they noted serious shortcomings, with the campaign skewed in Saakashvili’s favor.
Gachechiladze said he was the rightful winner and demanded the election be annulled. Up to 7,000 of his supporters rallied in the snow on the banks of the river Mtkvari which winds its way through Tbilisi.
“Mikhail Saakashvili, you cannot defeat the Georgian people,” Gachechiladze said, his hand clenched in a fist.
Protesters chanted “Georgia, Georgia” and held their index finger up in the air, representing number one — Gachechiladze’s number on the ballot paper.
He urged supporters to come back after a break for Georgian Orthodox Christmas and from January 8 hold rolling protests.
Analysts said even if he wins, Saakashvili was likely to emerge weakened from the election.
“He won’t be as radical as he was previously,” said Archil Gegeshidze, Senior Fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “The pace of economic reforms will slow down.”
Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili; editing by Giles Elgood