TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili was on Monday celebrating Orthodox Christmas and victory in a presidential election his opponents called rigged.
The central election commission said late on Sunday Saakaashvili had won 52.8 percent of votes cast on Saturday, almost twice as many as his nearest challenger, 43-year-old wine producer Levan Gachechiladze, with 27 percent.
The two political rivals both later joined a Christmas eve service in a Tbilisi cathedral.
Saakashvili called the elections after tens of thousands of people joined protests in November to demand an early poll, four years after the peaceful revolution that swept him to power.
He said the weekend vote had been “in many ways a triumph for democracy”.
“I took a huge political risk and gamble to go into this election,” he told the BBC.
“They (the voters) carried out the verdict not only on the events (of November) but also the reforms that preceded the events and that’s why we needed a fresh mandate to continue the reforms.”
At a rally on Sunday attended by up to 7,000 people, Gachechiladze called on supporters to protest against the election result daily from January 8, after the Christmas holiday.
“Mikhail Saakashvili, you cannot defeat the Georgian people,” Gachechiladze, his fist clenched, told protesters.
Western monitors said there had been voting violations but the result was a true expression of Georgians’ will.
By gaining more than half of the ballots Saakashvili won outright, without having to contest a second-round run-off. Votes from overseas polling stations remained to be counted but were too few to change the overall result.
Georgia lies on the route of a major pipeline carrying oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe and is the scene of a tussle for regional influence between Russia and the United States.
Saakashvili shocked Western allies in November by ordering police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.
The election result represents a huge drop in popularity for the 40-year-old, who enjoyed the support of about 90 percent of voters when elected to his first term.
His critics say his reforms — lauded by the West — have failed to help the poor, and call him an autocrat who pays only lip service to democratic freedoms. The opposition however broadly supports his pro-Western stance.
The OSCE report said the election was the first truly competitive contest in Georgia since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Past elections have either been completely one-sided or deemed unfair.
But observers also said there were serious shortcomings, with the campaign skewed in Saakashvili’s favor.
Saakashvili has steered Georgia towards NATO membership, angering former colonial master Russia.
Russia, which backs two separatist regions of Georgia, condemned the election as unfair.
“The presidential race has been marked by widespread use of ‘administrative resources’, blatant pressure on the opposition candidates, stringent restriction of access to financial and media resources,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Writing by James Kilner, editing by Andrew Roche