Exit Poll: Saakashvili's Party Wins Big

ReutersGeorgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his wife, Sandra Roelofs, leaving a voting booth in Tbilisi on Wednesday.
TBILISI, Georgia An independent exit poll showed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's party overwhelmingly winning parliamentary elections Wednesday, but a senior opposition leader claimed victory and protests were expected.

"In Georgia our democracy is alive and well," Saakashvili said after casting his ballot with his Dutch wife, who voted for the first time as a Georgian citizen.

The exit poll gave Saakashvili's United National Movement party about 63 percent of the vote, and the main United Opposition bloc 14 to 16 percent.

However, the opposition, which has accused Saakashvili of rigging the elections, said it had won.

"I would like to congratulate Georgian society on the fact that the opposition has won in all of Georgia," David Gamkrelidze, one of the leaders of United Opposition, told reporters. "The authorities have totally lost."

Georgias Vote
Electorate: 3.5 million voters.
Polling Stations: 3,554 in 76 electoral districts.
Rules: Three political blocs and nine parties, as well as thousands of individual candidates competed for 150 seats in a new legislature that will have a five-year term. Half the seats will be allocated on proportional basis to parties clearing a 5 percent barrier. The other half go to candidates winning first-past-the-post contests in individual constituencies. No elections in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Results: First partial unofficial results are expected Thursday. Final official results are due within a week.
Observers: More than 1,000 international and local observers, including 400 from the OSCE. Exit polls and parallel counts will be held by NGOs.

Main Players

United National Movement: Georgias ruling party led by President Mikheil Saakashvili. The partys main election promise is to eradicate poverty and unemployment.
United Opposition-National Council-Rights: Nine-party opposition bloc, the main rival to the ruling party. The bloc is led by Levan Gachechiladze, who was Saakashvilis main rival in the presidential election in January. He favors a less confrontational policy toward Russia.
Christian-Democratic Movement: New party led by Georgy Targamadze, who used to host a popular weekly program at independent Imedi TV, shut down by the government in November. It wants to declare Orthodox Christianity the official religion.
Labor Party: Leftist party led by a veteran Georgian politician Shalva Natelashvili. He ran in the presidential election and scored about 6 percent of the vote.
Republican Party: Leaders include some prominent Soviet-era dissidents. The party identifies itself with the U.S. Republican Party, favors radical economic reforms and opposes the CIS. It accuses Saakashvili of an autocratic style of government.
The first preliminary results are expected Thursday. If the exit poll is accurate, Saakashvili's party will win more than half the 75 seats up for grabs in party-list voting. The exit poll put the Christian Democratic Movement third with 8 to 9 percent and the Labor Party fourth with 5 to 6 percent.

In the 75 district races whose winners will fill the parliament's other 75 seats, the poll predicted Saakashvili's party would win more than 53 percent, with the United Opposition trailing with nearly 16 percent.

Opposition officials said before polls closed that they would rally 100,000 people in central Tbilisi to protest after the election.

The election was colored by tension over Russia's growing support for breakaway Abkhazia province, where gunfire broke out Wednesday along the border with Georgia, wounding several people trying to vote, a Georgian official said.

Abkhaz forces fired on two buses carrying Georgian residents from Abkhazia's Gali district across the border into Georgia so they could vote, Georgian Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said. Georgia's Rustavi-2 television showed footage of a burned-out bus and another with blown-out windows, along with several people it said had gunshot or shrapnel wounds.

The West sees the election as a test of Saakashvili's commitment to democracy as he steers his country toward NATO membership, a path that has riled Russia. Saakashvili's democratic credentials were badly tarnished when he sent riot troops to crush protests last November. Opponents say he stole victory in a snap January presidential poll, a charge he denies. Saakashvili, who has Western support in a dispute with Russia over its support for Georgia's two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, said he wanted a "beautiful" vote.

"Georgia is really a role model for many countries in this region, and we intend to stay this way despite all the external pressures we are coming under," Saakashvili said after voting.

The exit poll was conducted by a consortium of public organizations: Ilia Chavchavadze State University; Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development; Georgian Institute for Public Affairs; and Georgian Foundation for Strategic International Survey.

It was based on interviews of about 11,000 voters at nearly 400 polling stations across the country and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent, according to the executive director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, Avtandil Dzhokhadze. The same consortium conducted exit polls during the January presidential election in which Saakashvili won a second term. That poll's findings corresponded closely to the official results.