TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party appeared headed for victory on Monday in municipal polls, but foreign monitors pointed to “significant shortcomings” in the first electoral test since he led the country to defeat in a war with neighbouring Russia.
The tally from Sunday’s elections showed that opposition parties whose leaders have held exploratory talks with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin since the humiliating five-day war in August 2008 did not win solid support.
But the boost for Saakashvili, who weathered protests last year and is due to remain in power until 2013, was dented by the assessment of observers from Europe’s main vote-monitoring organisation.
“Yesterday’s municipal elections in Georgia marked evident progress towards meeting international standards but significant shortcomings remain to be addressed,” a team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) election watchdog said in a statement.
With returns from about a quarter of the precincts counted in a slew of local elections, Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement had 61.2 percent of the vote, Central Election Commission chairman Zurab Khatarishvili said.
Two opposition alliances had between 11 percent and 12 percent of the vote, he told reporters.
The opposition includes many former Saakashvili allies, but is fragmented and has struggled to capitalise on public disillusionment over the war with Georgia’s Soviet-era overlord and economic woes.
Pro-Western Saakashvili already celebrated after exit poll results late on Sunday gave the United National Movement about 60 percent of the vote. “The final result of today is that democracy has won in Georgia,” Saakashvili told supporters at his party headquarters.
In the capital Tbilisi, where more than half the precincts were counted, ruling party mayor Gigi Ugulava headed for re-election with 53.3 percent of vote, Khatarishvili said.
The first-ever direct vote for mayor in Tbilisi, home to more than a quarter of Georgia’s 4.5 million people, was seen as an early test for potential successors to Saakashvili, who is due to step down in 2013 after a decade in power.
“The victory will provide serious support for the ruling party and their candidate in 2013,” said Tbilisi-based analyst Archil Gegeshidze.
Opposition parties said the elections were marred by problems with voter lists, pressure on observers and illegal campaigning by the ruling party. The election commission said no major irregularities had been registered.
Some opposition leaders have called for closer ties with Moscow, which imposed an embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water, cut transport links in 2006 and recognised Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions after the war.
But an opposition alliance led by politicians including ex-premier Zurab Nogaideli, who has met with Putin recently, had about 7-8 percent of the votes, the election commission said.
An opinion poll before the vote showed jobs and poverty topped the list of concerns. The economy shrunk 3.9 percent last year, but is expected to grow by up to 5 percent in 2010.
Saakashvili says he has created a model democracy in a region dominated by rigged polls and long-serving authoritarian leaders. Critics accuse him of monopolising power, marginalising the opposition and manipulating the media.
The United States and European Union are keen to see stability in the volatile South Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to Europe.
Editing by Steve Gutterman and David Stamp