Calm Urged in Georgia After Disputed Election
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The president of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia appears to have won a second term after exit polls gave him a majority in yesterday's election. Pro-Western leader Mikhail Saakashvili says the election will give him a mandate to continue his reforms. But opposition leaders say the results were falsified, and they're calling on their supporters to take to the streets.
NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
(Soundbite of applause)
GREGORY FEIFER: Members of Saakashvili's campaign staff react to the first announcement inside their smoky headquarters in center of Tbilisi.
(Soundbite of car horns)
FEIFER: Outside, on a rare snowy night, Saakashvili supporters didn't wait for official results to celebrate. Car drivers honk horns and wave flags bearing the country's national red and white colors.
(Soundbite of cheering)
FEIFER: Several hours later, a confident looking appeared in a giant auditorium to thank hundreds of supporters.
President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): (Speaking in foreign language)
FEIFER: The American-trained lawyer, who came to power during the Rose Revolution in 2003, said he would wait for final official results. But he said exit polls showed he would win an outright majority, enabling him to avoid a runoff and urge opposition leaders to work with him. The exit polls showed Saakashvili's main opponent, Levan Gachechiladze, winning half Saakashvili's number of votes. But Gachechiladze says he won the election and accused Saakashvili of lying.
Mr. LEVAN GACHECHILADZE (Member of Parliament, Georgia; Presidential Candidate): (Through translator) The counting process is being held under conditions of terror. The exit polls have been falsified and Saakashvili has started a party to sell his victory to the electorate.
FEIFER: Gachechiladze and other opposition leaders have called on their supporters to take to the streets today. More than 1,000 international observers monitored the election, including more than 400 from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. So far, observers have said they have seen isolated violations, but that the election appears to have met democratic standards.
Nino Burjanadze is speaker of parliament and the country's acting president during the election. She says she urged her counterparts in Europe to send hundreds of additional observers to monitor the election.
Ms. NINO BURJANADZE (Speaker of the Parliament, Georgia): We did this to prove to everybody, to our people and to international communities, that we are really very serious about democracy, about democratic elections.
FEIFER: Opposition members don't agree. Last November, tens of thousands of demonstrators protested against what they call Saakashvili's authoritarian tactics. The president shocked his Western allies by ordering riot police to break up the protest. He accused the opposition of trying to seize power and called Saturday's election to diffuse the crisis and restore his authority. After casting his vote on Saturday, Saakashvili said the election was not about restoring his tattered democratic credentials but about getting a mandate to continue his policies.
Pres. SAAKASHVILI: We are going to stick to the course of the reforms, the radical reforms we institute to improve the life of our people, and to make Georgia a real success story.
FEIFER: Saakashvili says his priority in his new term will be to alleviate his country's endemic poverty and continue Georgia's drive to join NATO and integrate with the West. The authorities say they'll allow street protest to take place within the law. But as Tbilisi braces for possible demonstrations, many of those who voted yesterday say they'll respect any result and that the country has to leave its political instability behind.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Tbilisi.
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