TBILISI — Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's party headed for a landslide win in municipal elections Monday but victory was marred after Western observers said the vote suffered "significant shortcomings."
Facing his first electoral hurdle since Georgia's 2008 war with Russia, Saakashvili's United National Movement was set to sweep the vote in 64 municipalities across the country and in the capital Tbilisi, according to initial results and exit polls.
The expected election sweep will give a boost to Saakashvili domestically but the assessment by foreign monitors is unlikely to help his reputation in the West, damaged by his handling of the war and opposition claims of growing authoritarianism in Georgia.
"Yesterday's municipal elections in Georgia marked evident progress towards meeting international standards, but significant shortcomings remain to be addressed," the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the main international mission observing the vote, said in a statement.
Saakashvili had presented the election as a test of his commitment to democratic reforms and vowed they would be conducted fairly.
The OSCE said the elections were organised "in a transparent, inclusive and professional manner" but noted "systemic irregularities" including several cases of ballot box stuffing and an "uneven playing field favouring contestants from the incumbent party."
With ballots counted in 32 percent of voting precincts across the country, Saakashvili's United National Movement was leading with 61 percent of the vote, followed by the Christian Democrats and the Alliance for Georgia both with 12 percent, according to the Central Election Commission.
In Tbilisi, incumbent Gigi Ugulava, a key Saakashvili ally, was leading the mayoral race with 54 percent of the vote with 80 percent of precincts reporting.
Main opposition contender Irakli Alasania, a former ambassador to the United Nations, trailed with 20.5 percent.
With votes counted in 53 percent of precincts in the race for the Tbilisi city council, Saakashvili's party was also ahead with 50.5 percent of votes, followed by Alasania's Alliance for Georgia with 19 percent.
About 3.5 million people were registered to vote and voter turnout was 49 percent, the election commission said.
The election saw the first-ever direct vote for the powerful mayor's post in Tbilisi, a position seen as a potential springboard for the presidency after Saakashvili's second term ends in 2013.
Standing side-by-side with Ugulava after the vote, Saakashvili insisted the election had been a step forward for democratic reforms.
"The final result of the vote is that democracy has won," Saakashvili said in televised remarks Sunday.
Exit polls had earlier predicted the ruling party would take 59-60 percent of the vote in Tbilisi and that Ugulava would win with 60-61 percent, far ahead of Alasania with 17-18 percent.
Pre-election polls had forecast that Saakashvili's party would win the vote comfortably amid deep divisions in the opposition and continued support for his economic reforms.
Opposition leaders had promised to call supporters to the streets if they considered the vote unfair, but analysts say they do not expect a repeat of large-scale demonstrations held against Saakashvili last year.
Saakashvili weathered months of protests calling for his resignation over his handling of the war, which saw Russian forces pour into Georgia to repel an assault on the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Moscow later recognised South Ossetia and another rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, as independent states, a move that was followed by only a handful of other countries.
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