Shevardnadze Bloc Leads Georgia Poll

TBILISI (Reuters)–Preliminary results in a Georgia election showed a bloc backing veteran President Eduard Shevardnadze in the lead on Monday but opposition gains suggest his government will have a rougher ride in the new parliament.

International observers said Sunday’s election had been marred by irregularities–especially inaccurate voter lists–but also reported some progress.

Election officials in the former Soviet state said Shevardnadze’s For a New Georgia! bloc had taken 26.6 percent of about 50 percent of votes counted so far–the most of any single party–but less than the total won by opposition parties.

The outcome is seen as an indicator of who may succeed the 76-year-old leader–who is barred from running for a new term in the next presidential election in 2005.

The poll is also of interest to the West with a pipeline now being constructed and due to carry Caspian oil across the Caucasus through Georgia and Turkey to Western markets in 2005.

The five other parties getting the seven percent needed to win party seats from the poll were critical of Shevardnadze–who has led independent Georgia since 1992 and dominated politics in the region for decades.

Shevardnadze is still remembered in the West for his leading role as a Soviet foreign minister in ending the Cold War.

Once seen as the savior of Georgia–Shevardnadze now is deeply unpopular over broken promises to boost living standards–with average monthly wages equivalent to $30–and inability to quell separatism. He was sanguine about the election outcome. "I’m ready to cooperate with any political force in a new parliament. I don’t expect any confrontation between me and a new parliament in which the opposition will be dominant," he told a news conference.

POLL FLAWED BUT ENCOURAGING

Speaking on Georgian radio–Shevardnadze said the polls were the most fair and transparent since Georgia became independent.

Bruce George–president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly–said the main irregularities were linked to inaccurate voter lists.

"The November 2 parliamentary elections in Georgia fell short of a number OSCE commitmen’s and other international standards for democratic elections,” he told a news conference.

Many citizens were initially unable to vote. One polling station in the capital Tbilisi and another in Khobi in western Georgia were closed down altogether on procedural grounds.

"We believe that the people of this country are entitled to a better run election system,” said Thomas Cox–head of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly delegation.

However–monitors said certain aspects of the election demonstrated an improved legal framework–free campaigning–and democratic media coverage.

Though the opposition is splintered–commentators said at least two of the bigger parties opposing the Shevardnadze bloc could team up against it in parliament.

"I regard that result as a victory of the opposition,” said analyst Alexander Lomaia. Shevardnadze has been the target of several assassination bids in his volatile homeland over the past 10 years. His former party won a majority in the 1999 election but was all but wiped out by the opposition in local elections last year–and a new party was formed in its place.

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