|Saakashvili's Party Leads in Georgia Elections|
|May 31, 2010|
By SAMANTHA SHIELDS
TBILISI, Georgia—Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party was headed for a convincing victory in municipal elections Monday, according to exit polls, but international observers said the vote was marked by "significant shortcomings."
Exit polls and early tallies showed Mr. Saakashvili's United National Movement set to win over 60% of the vote, the first since August 2008's war with Russia. The elections, which will decide the composition of local councils around the country as well as the post of Tbilisi mayor, were widely seen an indicator of the opposition's ability to challenge Mr. Saakashvili and his party, two years after he led Georgia in a disastrous war with Russia.
"Yesterday's municipal elections in Georgia marked evident progress towards meeting international standards, but significant shortcomings remain to be addressed," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent around 200 observers, said in a statement.
The observers saw several cases of ballot-box stuffing and procedural violations of the vote count on Election Day, the statement said. It added that the campaign environment was tilted to favor contestants from Mr. Saakashvili's party, although it also said Georgia's public broadcaster provided overall balanced coverage.
The elections included the first direct vote for the powerful post of mayor of Tbilisi, seen as a possible prelude to the presidency when Mr. Saakashvili's term ends in 2013. Saakashvili-ally and incumbent Mayor Gigi Ugulava looked set to easily retain the post. He had 54% of the vote after 80% of precincts had been counted. Key opposition figure Irakli Alasania was well behind him with 20.5% of the vote.
The vote also gave opposition leaders little sign that a recent change of strategy—in which they have begun to reach out and even travel to Moscow to show they would be better able to repair relations with Georgia's powerful neighbor than Mr. Saakashvili—is bringing rewards.
Mr. Saakashvili swept to power in a wave of democratic fervor in 2003's Rose Revolution, promising closer ties with the West and improved living standards. While he had successes in economic policy, Mr. Saakashvili has since been accused of recklessly dragging Georgia into an unwinnable war with Russia, concentrating too much power in his own hands and clamping down on media freedom. Mr. Saakashvili says he didn't trigger the 2008 war, but was responding to a Russian invasion.
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