TBILISI (Reuters) - President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed victory on Thursday in Georgia’s parliamentary election, which European officials generally welcomed despite lingering concerns about the fairness of the ballot.
Saakashvili said voting was free and fair but the opposition said the authorities had rigged Wednesday’s vote and vowed to challenge it by calling street protests.
The pro-Western president needs a clean election to persuade sceptical European states that it is worth defying Russian objections and make Georgia, a key transit route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea to Europe, a NATO member.
“Election day was overall calm and generally assessed positively,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s vote monitor said in a statement. “There were numerous allegations of intimidation some of which could be verified.”
The democratic credentials of the 40-year-old leader were tarnished when he sent riot troops to crush protests last November. He won a snap January presidential election which critics said was rigged, a claim he denied.
Vote monitors said the distinction between the state and the ruling party was often blurred and that they had found cases of intimidation. But they said that overall the election had expressed the will of the people.
Saakashvili said his United National Movement could get close to a constitutional majority — or two-thirds of the seats — in parliament. Partial results showed his party won more than 61 percent of the vote.
“Yesterday was the triumph of the will of the Georgian people,” Saakashvili said in an address to the nation. “No-one can raise their hand against the will of the Georgian people.”
The European Union broadly welcomed the election but said it had not been unblemished.
“We are very, very happy that elections in Georgia went smoothly, that the turnout was good,” said Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel, whose country holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. “Our assessment is positive in general.”
“These elections were not perfect,” EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner said, but “they show substantial progress so indeed it’s very important that progress has been made.”
The opposition said voters had been intimidated by local officials and police and that the media had been dominated by coverage of the ruling party.
“This was a criminal election,” David Gamkrelidze, one opposition leader, told Reuters. “We together with the people must achieve the cancellation of the election results and the calling of a new parliamentary election.”
Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, swept to power in the peaceful 2003 “Rose” revolution. He promised market reforms and to re-orient his country towards Europe and the United States.
Georgia’s $10 billion economy lies at the heart of the Caucasus, where the United States and Russia are jostling for influence over the oil and gas transit route.
Analysts said that if Saakashvili’s party was confirmed winner of the elections, his rule would be at a turning point.
“This could develop in two ways — Saakashvili could return to the authoritarian style which pushed people out onto the streets,” said Archil Gegeshidze, a political analyst.
“But I hope Saakashvili has learnt from his mistakes and as the opinion of the West is very important for him, I hope he will change his style of governance,” he said.
With over a half the ballots counted, the main opposition coalition bloc was in second place with 15.3 percent, according to the Election Commission, which said the vote was fair.
Opposition coalition leader Levan Gachechiladze said as polling stations closed that he would call 100,000 people onto the streets. “The struggle against Saakashvili’s regime will continue every day until this regime departs forever,” he said.
Leaders of the coalition said they would meet to decide their strategy but they were not available for comment.
Additional reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi and Marja Novak in Brdo, Slovenia; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Jon Boyle