Supporters of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze are holding a slim lead in first returns from parliamentary elections. But the gap with the opposition is closing as more votes are counted. Western observers say the balloting was rigged.

"Spectacularly flawed" were the words that the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission to Georgia used to describe Sunday's elections.

The official, Bruce George, told reporters in Tbilisi that the vote was marred by widespread confusion and delays over voter lists.

Mr. George said that, to international observers monitoring the elections, the flaws undermined the credibility of Georgia's electoral and democratic process.

With half the votes counted, election commission officials say Mr. Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc has secured 27 percent of the votes. The number represents the most of any single party running in the race.

Five opposition parties appear to have secured enough votes to win party seats in Sunday's poll, which is being viewed as a key indicator of political sentiment for Georgia's next presidential elections scheduled for 2005.

Opposition groups say the early gains for their parties show just how out of favor President Eduard Shevardnadze and his government have become.

Reuter's news agency quotes Mr. Shevardnadze as telling a news conference in Tbilisi that he is ready to cooperate with any political force in a new parliament.