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Georgia Leader: Country on Right Track

Monday, January 07, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia —  President Mikhail Saakashvili said Monday there were "an amazingly low number" of violations in a weekend election that returned him to office, while the opposition cited widespread fraud and vowed to take the outcome to the courts and even the streets.

The close U.S. ally won 51.94 percent of Saturday's vote _ narrowly clearing the 50 percent threshold for a first-round victory, the Central Elections Commission said Monday with more than 85 percent of precincts counted. His main challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, got 25.19 percent.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Saakashvili acknowledged Georgia's path had not been smooth but said the election demonstrated that the former Soviet republic was on the road to becoming a European democracy.

"I believe there are many aspects that need to be criticized, this is still a country in transition, this is still not a full-fledged, very well-formed, crystalized society, we still have lots of things to do," said Saakashvili, who has touches of gray hair at age 40 after four years in office, yet still exudes youthful energy.

"But I think we are on the right track and this election has just proven that," he said.

International observers agreed. Although pointing to an array of violations, including cases of multiple voting, they said the balloting overall was in line with democratic standards.

Saakashvili said the balloting "went very smoothly."

"We had almost 3,000 precincts, polling stations, and we have like 40 violations or so registered. This is an amazingly low number. That really shows that it went in a disciplined manner," he said.

Gachechiladze said the opposition has proof Saakashvili did not win more than 50 percent of the vote. He said the opposition would contest the election results in court but would return to the streets if their efforts failed.

The United States congratulated Georgia for holding what it said was the country's first genuinely competitive presidential election.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, however, that monitors had "identified significant problems that must be corrected." The U.S. urged Georgia to investigate those allegations of irregularities before parliamentary elections expected in spring.

"We encourage all political forces to work peacefully and responsibly for a democratic Georgia," McCormack said.

Saakashvili has been under pressure to prove he remains committed to democracy after violently breaking up anti-government protests late last year, imposing a state of emergency and shutting down an independent television station.

His victory was announced late Sunday as Georgians headed to church for midnight services on Orthodox Christmas Eve. Both candidates attended a liturgy broadcast live on national television, and Saakashvili was shown offering his hand to Gachechiladze, who shook it.

Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, came to power four years ago after leading street demonstrations that ousted a corrupt government led by former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Since then, he has displayed formidable energy and determination in transforming Georgia into a country with a growing economy and aspirations of joining the European Union and NATO.

But in a country with a history of upheaval, he may need to add compromise and consensus-building to his political skills.

In giving their assessment of the election, the international observers urged him to reach out to the opposition and direct his attention to easing tensions within the country.

Saakashvili told the AP he was ready to work with the opposition, but he said concerns over a sharp divide in society were exaggerated.

"I would not exaggerate the idea of a deep split," Saakashvili said. "This election campaign went very well. In any normal European country, if somebody gets more than 50 percent outright in the first round, it is called a landslide, and I don't see why Georgia should be otherwise.

"With regard to the political process _ yes, we need to be consensus builders, yes we need to agree on many things. We can never agree on some of the things, because that is how every democratic nation is," he added.

Saakashvili said he was not worried about the opposition's plans to hold protests, saying that peaceful rallies are part of the democratic process.

"Everybody has the right to have peaceful rallies," he said. "I think unruly behavior will not be tolerated, but peaceful rallies are one of the ways to do political campaigns."

In the center of Tbilisi, which glistened with a fresh dusting of snow, Christmas music rang out from churches and children rode a toy train and ice skated at an amusement park set up in front of parliament.

Svetlana Malofeyeva, 32, who was watching the ice skaters with her two children, said she had badly wanted to see Saakashvili win and her friends all knew this.

"Everyone called me to congratulate me and we had a celebration at home," added Malofeyeva, who is unemployed but just completed a three-month jobs program introduced by Saakashvili and has hopes of starting work soon.

___

Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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