|Ruling party ahead in Georgia election|
|May 22, 2008|
May 22, 2008
Georgia's pro-western president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was on the verge of victory last night in parliamentary elections marred by violence and opposition claims of vote-rigging.
Official results could take several days to emerge, but early exit polls showed that Mr Saakashvili's governing United National Movement had won 63 per cent of the vote. Victory for the party would bolster one of the west's few allies in the volatile Caucasus region.
The vote is being closely watched by Russia and the west. Western observers view the election as a test of Mr Saakashvili's democratic credentials.
Voting was largely calm, but Georgian television showed residents on the border of the breakaway region of Abkhazia dashing for cover as Georgian security forces exchanged fire with unidentified fighters.
Officials in Tbilisi said the incident was an attempt to prevent Abkhaz residents from crossing the border to vote in Georgian-controlled territory. Several civilians were reportedly injured in the brief skirmish and a bus blown up, Georgian officials said.
The incident follows weeks of rising tension between Tbilisi and Moscow, which have clashed repeatedly over control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another region pulling away from Georgia.
Mr Saakashvili has accused Moscow of backing the separatists and blocking Georgian attempts to reintegrate the regions.
The west views Georgia - along with Ukraine and the Baltic states - as beacons of democracy on post-Soviet turf, but is concerned by the turmoil in Tbilisi's politics.
Moscow despises Mr Saakashvili's assertively pro-western stance, including his aspirations for Nato membership.
Under Mr Saakashvili, Georgia has seen impressive economic growth but domestic politics have been plagued by bitter rivalries. Divisions run deep and recently spilled over into mass street protests.
The elections come four months after Mr Saakashvili - who was propelled to power by the pro-democracy "Rose Revolution" in 2003 - won a fresh mandate in an early presidential poll called to defuse a crisis sparked by his crackdown on opposition protesters.
Opposition leaders accuse him of monopolising power and of authoritarian tactics such as the closure of critical media. Some opposition parties plan to protest against what they say was a rigged parliamentary vote.
The opposition is also pro-west, but seeks better ties with Moscow. Levan Gachechiladze, leader of a nine-party bloc, said Mr Saakashvili's "overly aggressive rhetoric" against Moscow had backfired. Only calm, pragmatic talks would open the door to re-integrating the breakaway regions, he said.
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