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Saakashvili claims Georgia victory

Shevardnadze
Shevardnadze talks to reporters after voting in Tbilisi.

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TBILISI, Georgia (CNN) -- Exit polls gave Mikhail Saakashvili more than 85 percent of the vote in Sunday's election to replace ousted Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who said he had been among the Georgians to vote for the charismatic opposition leader.

Fireworks erupted outside the parliament building in Tblisi -- where a peaceful revolution forced Shevardnadze's resignation six weeks ago -- when the polls closed at 8 p.m. (11 a.m. ET).

Official but still preliminary results are expected by midnight ET, but a final count will take up to two weeks. However, Saakashvili's apparent overwhelming victory over five other candidates was expected.

Central Elections Commission head Zurab Chiaberashvili said that enough people had voted three hours before the polls closed to reach the 50 percent turnout needed to validate the election.

Saakashvili, 36, led tens of thousands of protesters in November demonstrations that came to be known as the "rose revolution" -- a dramatic event that saw Shedvardnadze, on live television, flee out the back door of parliament as the demonstrators rushed in the front.

After the opposition agreed to guarantee his safety, Shevardnadze resigned and on Sunday said he had cast his ballot for Saakashvili, although he believes the opposition leader still needs more experience.

"You need to do more than deliver speeches," Shevardnadze said. "He has to learn how to communicate with people.

"I wish him luck and success in his work. He's a gifted, well-educated man."

Former parliament speaker Nino Burdzhanadze has been acting president since Shevardnadze stepped down on Nov. 23.

"We know what we have to do," Burdzhanadze told CNN. "First of all, the main issue in the country is to fight against corruption, to improve the economy situation, to be more active in international organizations and in international relations."

Saakashvili
Saakashvili votes, holding roses as symbol of the "rose revolution."

Burdzhanadze said that improving Georgia's economy will stabilize her troubled country, and called for Russia to "play a positive role, not negative" with the former Soviet republic.

The calls for Shevardnadze's resignation and the subsequent demonstrations began after opposition leaders and international observers said Nov. 2 elections were rigged in favor of pro-government parties.

Burdzhanadze said for Sunday's election the government appointed a new central election commission to avoid the old problems.

The new commission, she said, is made up of people "who had quite serious confidence" from the Georgia citizenry.

"We tried to work very hard with people, to explain that most important now is to have free and fair elections," she said.

Shevardnadze led Georgia after President Zviad Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in January 1992. He was elected president in November 1995.

-- CNN's Ryan Chilcote contributed to this report.


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