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Georgia's Presidential Election Closes, Shaakashvili Poised to Win


Exit polls in the Georgian presidential election show President Mikhail Saakashvili winning the contest with nearly 54 percent (53.8) of the vote. Businessman Levan Gachechiladze is in second place with more than 28 percent (28.3) and the remainder of the vote is split among five other contenders, with official results expected on Sunday. Georgia's election authorities said Sunday Mikhail Saakashvili is set to win a second term as president with no need for a second-round vote. As VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports from Tbilisi, the election is considered critical in the restoration of Georgia's democratic credentials.

An unusually heavy snowfall covered Georgia on this unusual election day. As children threw snowballs and sledded down neighborhood hills, older people headed to polling stations and stood outdoors in lines waiting to cast ballots. Several voters told the VOA the snow did not get in the way, and many seemed to enjoy it.

This voter, who identified herself as Tsiuri, says she and her husband walked instead of taking a special bus to the polls. She says the walk was worthwhile both aesthetically and politically.

Tsiuri adds that the snap election is important to determine what happened during Georgia's November protests and to put the country back on the right track.

Riot police used force to disperse demonstrators, and President Mikhail Saakashvili declared a state of emergency, moves that damaged Georgia's democratic credentials. The president set a date for elections in response to the demonstrations against his government.

On election day, several opposition leaders accused authorities of voting irregularities, including ballot box tampering and multiple voting. The Georgian Central Election Commission confirmed 190 infractions nationwide. International observers on Sunday are expected to report to what extent such violations impact the final result.

In remarks to the VOA, Portuguese parliamentarian Joao Suarez, an observer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, explained the monitoring process.

"We will put together all of the information that is coming from around the country and we will make our opinion on the basis of this immense team of short-term and long-term observers that are in Georgia," said Joao Suarez.

Long-term monitors arrived in the country a month ago to observe the campaign, while other came just for the election itself.

Six candidates challenged the 40-year-old incumbent, Mikhail Saakashvili. The leading contender is Levan Gachachiladze, a businessman who advocates elimination of the presidency in favor of a parliamentary system..

Also on the ballot Saturday was a referendum on whether the country should join NATO. Six of the seven presidential candidates support membership. The NATO referendum is non-binding.

The winner in the presidential contest must get at least 50 percent of the vote. If not, the top two vote-getters face off in a second round in two weeks.

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