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Pro-Government Bloc Leads in Georgia in Early Vote Results - 2003-11-03

Early returns from Georgia's weekend parliamentary elections give a pro-government bloc supporting President Eduard Shevardnadze a slim lead.

Georgia's Central Election Commission says that, with nearly 20 percent of the ballots counted from Sunday's election, the pro-government bloc, For a New Georgia, has taken the lead with about 26 percent of the vote.

The opposition National Movement bloc is reported coming in a close second, followed by Georgia's Labor party in third.

The early, unofficial returns contrast sharply with U.S.-run exit polls of thousands of voters, which gave the opposition National Movement bloc a decisive lead, and left the pro-government party in a distant second place.

Opposition critics say they believe the government will do everything it can to avoid defeat, including engaging in ballot fraud and vote rigging.

In his regular Monday radio address, President Shevardnadze acknowledged that breaches happened during the course of Sunday's voting. But he said he does not believe they will affect the overall validity of the elections.

In the early hours of voting Sunday, there were reports of multiple problems at polling stations. Hundreds of voters were turned away, allegedly because their names did not appear on voter registration lists. Other polling stations failed to open at all.

Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, was reported calm on Monday, as citizens await more definitive results.

Officials with Georgia's Central Election Commission say more than half of eligible voters cast ballots, surpassing the required minimum to make the vote valid.

The election is being viewed as a key indicator of political sentiment for Georgia's next presidential elections, which are scheduled for 2005. Mr. Shevardnadze, who is serving the second - and last permissible - term as president, will not be eligible to run as candidate.

His government is deeply unpopular in Georgia, where many voters identify it with a decade of corruption and misrule. There are now near daily protests against Mr. Shevardnadze outside Georgia's parliament, which is often dark from the frequent power failures that plague the country.

Georgia used to boast the highest per capital income of all the 15 republics in the former Soviet Union. But now, its people struggle to make ends meet on the national average wage of $50 a month.