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In Georgia election, Saakashvili's mandate weakens

The pro-West president called Saturday's snap polls after being criticized for authoritarianism. With early results giving him 48 percent of the vote, opponents protest fraud.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Paul RimpleContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2008

Rally: Supporters of presidential candidate Mikhail Saakashvili waved flags at a rally Sunday in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Sergei Grits/AP

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Mikhail Saakashvili's decision to resist authoritarianism and trust the democratic process, made amid his government's near collapse this fall, may not pan out as he had hoped.

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With results trickling in at press time, it was uncertain whether the US-trained lawyer would outright win the snap polls he called in response to charges that he was behaving like a dictator by declaring a state of emergency in November.

But if Mr. Saakashvili manages to win at least 50 percent of votes in this election, or a runoff in two weeks – and overcomes the vocal opposition's protests of fraudulent polls – the result could be greater stability. Though his mandate would be weaker than when he won 96 percent in the Rose Revolution four years ago, Saakashvili could still get a second term, in which he has pledged to devote to fighting the tiny nation's desperate poverty, steering it into NATO, and bringing two breakaway regions to heel.

Monday is Orthodox Christmas, and in deeply observant Georgia, no major political activity is likely until after the festival. But at a small, snowy rally in Tbilisi Sunday, Saakashvili's main contender, Levan Gachechiladze, of the united opposition accused Georgian authorities of falsifying the exit polls and rigging the vote and vowed to fight the results in court. "We will tell Mikhael Saakashvili that it's impossible to defeat the Georgian people," Mr. Gachechiladze said. "We will defend our vote by legal means."

The Association of Young Lawyers, an independent Georgian watchdog, said it has filed about 95 complaints with regional electoral commissions in the Georgian cities of Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Batumi. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent more than 400 election observers, noted that the campaign had been marred by "lack of trust and pervasive allegations of violations." But it certified the voting in Georgia's first fairly contested elections as "consistent with international standards."

But one opposition leader, Tina Khidasheli of the moderate Republican Party, says the OSCE has been wrong about Georgian elections in the past. "Look what happened in 2003, when the OSCE said the elections were free and fair," she says. "We had the Rose Revolution because we knew their results were false." She chalks up unexplained delays in preparing the final vote tally Sunday as a likely indication that officials are rigging the vote again.