Georgia's Vote Called Flawed but Still Fair

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed victory Thursday in Georgia's parliamentary vote, which Europe's elections watchdog said had only partially lived up to the country's democratic commitments.

Saakashvili said voting was free and fair, but the opposition said the authorities had rigged Wednesday's vote and vowed to challenge it by calling street protests.

Vote monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the distinction between the state and the ruling party was often blurred and that they had found cases of intimidation. But overall, the vote had expressed the will of the people.

"These elections were not perfect, but since I was here in January for the presidential elections, concrete and substantial progress has been made," said Joao Soares, coordinator of the OSCE observer team. "Problems and much work remain."

Saakashvili said his United National Movement could get close to a constitutional majority -- or two-thirds of the seats -- in the parliament. Partial results showed that 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 that we got in these parliamentary elections," he added.

With more than half the ballots counted, the main United Opposition 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 had been fair.

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," said David Gamkrelidze, an opposition leader. "We together with the people must get the election results canceled and a new parliamentary election called."

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 Champions League football 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.

The election is seen as a test of Saakashvili's commitment to democracy, crucial to his aim of bringing the country into NATO.