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Georgia's Opposition Supporters Protest, Demand Recount

Tens of thousands opposition supporters in Georgia took to the streets of the capital Tbilisi to protest what they call massive fraud in the election of pro-Western leader Mikhail Saakahsvili as president last week. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from Budapest.

The rally was organized by Georgia's opposition coalition of nine political parties. It reflects a widespread disillusionment with Mr. Saakashvili's performance during his first term.

The protesters, some carrying musical instruments and shouting and singing anti-government slogans, took to the streets after the Central Election Committee announced that Mikhail Saakashvili has been re-elected as president in the January 5 poll with more than 53 percent of the vote.

This was enough to avoid a run-off election round, but far less than the 40-year-old US-educated lawyer received in 2004 when he won by a landslide after a peaceful revolution ousted his predecessor.

Mr. Saakashvili's main opposition rival, Levan Gachechiladze, received about 25 percent of the vote, according to the official results.

The head of the Central Election Commission, Levan Tarkhnishivli, said a large percentage of people turned out to vote.

"The Central Election Committee has summarized the result of the 5 January presidential election and I can say it was one of the highest turnover [turnout] in Georgia history, and the winning candidate is Mr. Mikhail Saakashvili who won 53.47 percent of all participation in elections," said Levan Tarkhnishivli.

International observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election met most international standards. The European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana described Georgia's presidential election as "truly competitive."

But the opposition maintains the poll was rigged, and has complained about a lack of media access ahead of the election. Leading opposition activist Salome Zurabishvili said in remarks broadcast by EuroNews Television that Mr. Saakashvili fell short of the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a second round of voting.

"We are asking for what is due, which is the second round of these elections," said Salome Zurabishvili. "We have counted, we have protested the fraud. We have to get a second round."

Mr. Saakashvili himself sees the elections as a clear sign democracy has taken hold in Georgia.

"I think some of the criticism we have got lately was a little bit hasty," said Mikhail Saakahsvili. "I think it was more or less based on a lack of information and clichés. I think many things have become much more clearly later. But certainly these elections have proven once more that Georgia has democratic credentials, and it has proven that Georgia is really indeed a beacon of democracy for this part of the world."

Mr. Saakashvili has been praised in the West for helping Georgia to transform into a country with a better business climate and aspirations of joining the European Union and NATO.