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Pro-western Georgia president headed to election victory

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  • NEW: Saakashvili appears to be winning majority of the vote
  • Georgian election declared free and fair by international observers
  • Opposition supporters claim vote was flawed, plan protests in capital, Tblisi
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TBILISI, Georgia (CNN) -- Near-complete returns from Georgia's presidential election show pro-western President Mikheil Saakashvili winning a majority of the vote, the head of the former Soviet republic's electoral commission said Sunday.


Supporters wave flags Sunday after exit polls showed Saakashivili was heading for victory.

A few precincts and some votes from abroad remained to be counted. But the outstanding votes are not enough to change the outcome, Central Elections Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili said.

Saakashvili claimed 52.8 percent of the vote, while opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze had 27 percent, Tarkhnishvili said.

Saakashvili, the hero of Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in 2003, was elected in a landslide four years ago. He called Saturday's snap election after he was criticized for a crackdown against violent anti-government protests in November.

Georgia is a former Soviet republic on the Black Sea.

Observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the vote had been "the first genuinely competitive presidential election in the country, enabling the Georgian people to express their political choice."

In a statement released Sunday, the group said Georgia's election commission had carried out an extensive voter education campaign in a short timeframe and operated transparently. Overall polling had been organized and relatively peaceful, it added.

But it acknowledged some cases of voter intimidation and some technical flaws such as a slow counting process and admitted that in some cases the commission's members had acted in a partisan manner, "not always observing the neutrality required of an election administration."

Two other groups of international observers released signed statements that the voting was free and fair. More than 2,000 election observers and 160 media organizations from around the world had converged on Georgia.

Supporters of Gachechiladze mingled in the bitter cold in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, some passing out flyers, others chanting slogans with hands tucked in their jacket pockets as snow flurries fell around them.

The streets were teeming with security forces who appeared poised in case the protests turned violent.

Just four years ago, Saakashvili won with 96 percent of the vote -- an election that came just two months after he led his own anti-government protest that came to be known as the "Rose Revolution."

That dramatic event saw Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, on live television, flee out the back door of parliament as demonstrators rushed in the front.

When Saakashvili was faced with his own protests accusing him of corruption last November, he declared a nationwide state of emergency and sent security forces, using water cannons and tear gas, against the crowds. Hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police.

He answered charges that he had become anti-democratic by calling for a new presidential election which he hoped would show he is not trying to become an authoritarian leader.

"We are a democracy in a region where democracy is not meant to be," he said Saturday.

He is hoping voters will credit him for the reversal of his republic's economy -- which included 10 percent growth last year.

"We took a country that was nowhere, a failed state with basically a zero reputation, and with a very, very negative reputation, and now look at where Georgia is," he said.

"We are going to stick to the course of the reforms," he said. "The radical reforms we instituted improved the lives of our people and made Georgia a real success story."

The continuation for Saakashvili's government is important for the United States. Georgia is the third largest contributor of troops to the coalition in Iraq -- behind the United States and Britain. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Journalist Elene Gotsadze in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

All About Republic of GeorgiaMikhail Saakashvili

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