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Observers Say Georgia's Election Was Fair

Election results in Saturday's Georgian presidential election continue to trickle in, with the interim count giving incumbent President Mikhail Saakashvili a narrow victory. International observers say the election was Georgia's first genuinely competitive presidential contest, which enabled Georgians to express their political choice. But as VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports from Tbilisi, the opposition is crying foul.

Hundreds of international election observers descended on Georgia from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. The OSCE coordinator, U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings says he has never seen so many monitors in the hundreds of elections he has observed.

Speaking on behalf of the observer mission, Congressman Hastings said the Georgian presidential vote was, in essence, consistent with most OSCE and Council of Europe standards for democratic elections.

"Democracy took a triumphant step because of the demonstrative competitiveness of this campaign," said Alcee Hastings. "I perceive this election as a viable expression of free choice of the Georgian people, but the future holds immense challenges."

Congressman Hastings and other monitors noted allegations of intimidation against public sector employees, diversion of state resources and media coverage in favor of the incumbent, vote buying, and other violations.

The observer delegation also noted a high degree of mistrust and polarization in Georgian society. The monitors issued a call to both sides, asking all political players to respect the legitimacy of the election and the government to institute immediate electoral reforms in time for upcoming parliamentary elections.

Journalists asked if the violations would impact the final election result, but Congressman Hastings said it would be inappropriate to comment, because the vote count was still in progress during the Sunday afternoon news conference.

That count was less than 50 percent complete more than 24 hours after polls closed, prompting opposition complaints of deliberate foot-dragging by election officials.

In the absence of a final tally, exit polls from the previous night indicating a victory by President Saakashvili gave his supporters grounds to celebrate victory, and opponents a reason to protest what they believe to be a stolen election.

At least 5,000 opposition members gathered in downtown Tbilisi to protest an election for which there was yet no official result.

Among them was Tamaz Khachidze, a regional political coordinator, who said there was too great a disparity between the exit polls and estimates by the opposition.

Khachidze told VOA an opposition representative was present during vote counts in all electoral precincts. According to the activist, opposition candidates won 63 percent of the vote, give or take a few percent.

Exit polls gave Mr. Saakashvili 54 percent, which is enough to win the election without facing a runoff. The polls show Levan Gachechiladze in second place with 28 percent.

In remarks to VOA, Mr. Gachechiladze categorically rejected the conclusion by international observers that Sunday's election was democratic. He says the finding will further divide Georgia into two opposite poles.

"What the observers are doing right now, they are making two poluses [poles]," said Levan Gachechiladze. "One is the Saakashvili polus, and the second is all of Georgia. And it is not good for Georgian democracy. It will allow Saakashvili to continue his authoritarian regime, and maybe we [will] get a dictator very soon."

Mr. Saakashvili called the January 5 presidential election after riot police in early November used force to put down mass protests against his government. The Georgian leader said the early vote would give his country a chance to heal wounds caused by the November events.

But deep mistrust is evident on all sides of Georgian society, which celebrates Christmas on Monday. More opposition protests are expected the day after.