Georgian president, opponent both claim victory

Lynn Berry and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili / The Associated Press /

TBILISI, Georgia — Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the opposition both claimed victory Monday in a parliamentary election that has been shaken up by a prison abuse video that activists say showed the cruel, authoritarian face of the government.

The governing party was in a heated race with the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has posed the most serious challenge to the pro-Western president since Saakashvili came to power almost nine years ago.

No results have been released yet in Monday’s vote. Emotions were running high, with scores of opposition supporters thronging the streets of Tbilisi, the capital, early today. Both sides, however, have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.

Two exit polls conducted by Edison Research and Gfk gave the edge to the opposition, but they were completed four hours before the voting stations closed and registered only the vote based on party lists, which is used to elect 77 of parliament’s 150 members.

The remaining 73 members are directly elected by majority vote in their constituencies, where the president’s United National Movement is considered to have a strong advantage in this nation of 4.5 million people on the Black Sea.

Saakashvili, speaking on television shortly after the polls closed, said the opposition had indeed won the party vote, largely on the strength of its support in Tbilisi. Still, he insisted his party was far ahead in the direct elections and would retain its majority in parliament.

Georgian Dream, however, said its exit polls showed it would win the party vote by 63 percent and citing Ivanishvili as saying he was “prepared to ensure a parliamentary majority.”

The Central Election Commission said the first preliminary results were expected at 3 a.m. today.

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