Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili appeared poised for re-election Sunday, but his chief opponent rejected early results and called a street protest, threatening the ex-Soviet republic with turmoil.
As preliminary results and an exit poll indicated Saakashvili would defeat his six challengers in a single round, up to 10,000 people gathered in snowy central Tbilisi to express anger at what they said was a rigged election.
“We face terror,” the main challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, said at the rally. “Mikheil Saakashvili: it is impossible to defeat the Georgian people. We will defend our vote by legal means.”
The main international monitoring mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation declared Saturday’s snap election free and fair.
The OSCE mission head, US congressman Alcee Hastings, told journalists that “democracy took a triumphant step” and described the vote as “a valid expression of the choice of the Georgian people.”Â
Senior US State Department official urged restraint and called for the results to be respected.
Supporters of Saakashvili — a strong US ally seeking to bind his formerly Russian-dominated country into NATO and other Western institutions — celebrated throughout the night after voting.
An exit poll showed Saakashvili would get 53.8 percent, passing the 50-percent barrier for winning outright and avoiding a run-off round.
Saakashvili, 40, declared the poll showed “we are winning in the first round.”
Early official results Sunday, based on around 10 percent of ballots, also showed Saakashvili ahead with 55.23 percent.
But Gachechiladze, a wine entrepreneur, said the election was stolen and that he was the true victor.
The exit poll gave Gachechiladze only 23.68 percent and the early official results 22.56 percent.
He claimed “we actually won in almost every precinct” and accused Saakashvili’s camp of ballot stuffing, multiple voting and stealing ballot boxes.
The call for street protests sparked fears of a renewal of the violent unrest in November that triggered Saturday’s early election.
Protestors carried placards depicting Saakashvili as the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
However the rally on Rike Square started peacefully and in smaller numbers than the protests that rocked Tbilisi in November.
The seven-candidate contest on Saturday was the biggest test of Saakashvili’s authority since he swept to power in the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
He scheduled the vote a year early in response to clashes between police and protestors in November and a subsequent nine-day state of emergency, during which the authorities shut down the main opposition television station.
Mindful of the tiny country’s strategic importance, the United States, the European Union and Russia were watching closely to see whether Saakashvili was able to restore his authority and democratic credentials.
Major US-backed oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean run through Georgia, bypassing Russia to the north and Iran to the south.
Saakashvili has also defied Russian pressure in applying for NATO membership, a policy that appeared to have won solid support in a referendum also held Saturday.
According to the exit poll, managed by two leading Georgian institutes and two independent think tanks, 61 percent of voters backed the country joining NATO in the non-binding plebiscite.
Moscow has struck back at Georgia’s pro-Western course with sweeping economic sanctions and support for armed rebels who control two separatist regions of Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Central Election Commission said that full preliminary figures would be published shortly after 8:00 pm (1600 GMT), 24 hours after polls closed.