Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared victory on Thursday in a parliamentary election that the opposition said was rigged in his favor and vowed to challenge by calling street protests, according to Reuters.
Saakashvili said Wednesday`s vote was fair, but the rigging allegations and the threat of protests will test his claim to lead one of the former Soviet Union`s most democratic states.
The pro-Western president needs a clean election to persuade skeptical European states that it is worth defying Russian objections by making Georgia, a key transit route for oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Sea to Europe, a NATO member.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel, whose country holds the European Union`s rotating presidency, said there was no doubt Saakashvili`s party had won. "Assessment of the election is positive in general," Rupel told reporters.
Saakashvili said his United National Movement could get close to a constitutional majority -- or two thirds of the seats -- in parliament. Partial results showed his party won more than 61 percent of the vote.
"Yesterday was the triumph of the will of the Georgian people," Saakashvili said in an address to the nation. "No-one can raise their hand against the will of the Georgian people."
"Even I was astonished by the big level of support which we got in these parliamentary elections," he added.
But the opposition said voters had been intimidated by local officials and police and that the media had been dominated by coverage of the ruling party.
"This was a criminal election," David Gamkrelidze, one opposition leader, told Reuters. "We together with the people must achieve the cancellation of the election results and the calling of a new parliamentary election."
Europe`s leading election monitor, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), was to give its preliminary verdict on the election at 5 p.m. (1300 GMT).
Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, swept to power in the peaceful 2003 "Rose" revolution. He promised market reforms and to re-orient his country towards Europe and the United States.
The democratic credentials of the 40-year-old leader were tarnished when he sent riot troops to crush protests last November. He won a snap January presidential election which critics said was rigged.
Georgia`s $10 billion economy lies at the heart of the Caucasus, where the United States and Russia are jostling for influence over the oil and gas transit route.
It is locked in a dispute with Russia over its NATO ambitions and Moscow`s support for the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi`s Western allies have taken its side in the row.
With over a half the ballots counted, the main opposition coalition bloc was in second place with 15.3 percent, according to the Central Election Commission. The Christian Democratic Movement was third with 8 percent and the Labor party fourth with 7 percent. The election commission said the vote was fair.
Opposition coalition leader Levan Gachechiladze said as polling stations closed that he would call 100,000 people onto the streets. But only about 4,000 gathered in central Tbilisi on Wednesday night and spent the first part of the protest watching the soccer Champions League final on giant screens.
"The struggle against Saakashvili`s regime will continue every day until this regime departs forever," said Gachechiladze, who was once one of Saakashvili`s allies.
Leaders of the coalition said they would meet on Thursday to decide their strategy.