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Saakashvili heads for victory in early presidential race

Georgian former president Mikhail Saakashvili won 52.8% of more than half of counted ballots by late Sunday in a snap presidential race, heading a narrow victory that was challenged by opposition’s allegation of rigging.

The Central Commission of Election chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili said that at a press conference held in the CEC headquarters downtown Tbilisi. A candidate has to win 50% plus one vote in Saturday’s election, that was called by Saakashvili last November. Otherwise, a run-off between the top two candidates in the first round will be held two weeks later. Saakashvili and his opposition competitor Levan Gachechiladze, who was backed by a nine-party coalition, are leading the 12-hour voting, CEC figures showed.

International observers consider the January 5 presidential elections in Georgia as a step towards democracy, the head of the international monitoring mission US Congressman Alcee Hastings said at a briefing on Sunday. The electoral campaign was quite competitive and the elections were held in a free and democratic atmosphere though there were some violations, he said. The Georgian elections complied with international standards, the head of the IRI monitoring group and former member of the US House of Representatives from Arizona Jim Kolbe said.

IRI deployed 26 observers at 110 polling stations all over Georgia, he said. The monitoring mission comprised representatives from the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Ukraine, and the United States. The mission registered violations at the elections but they were to a large extent technical, Kolbe said. The pre-election campaign was quite competitive and was held without any violence, he said. He also hailed the efforts of all the candidates for the presidency, who carried out an active electoral campaign. The single list of voters was the main deficiency at the elections and authorities should work on improving it before the elections, the former congressman said. The final results of monitoring, as well as recommendations to authorities, will be made within a month, Kolbe said.

(BBJ 7.i.08)