Mikhael Saakashvili has been narrowly re-elected as president of Georgia, but opposition leaders have vowed to fight what they describe as coercion, official abuse and vote-rigging in the courts.
Georgia's Central Election Commission said Monday that a nearly complete vote tally shows the US-educated Saakashvili, 40, winning in the first round with 52.8 per cent of the votes. His nearest challenger, united opposition candidate Levan Gachechiladze, had 27 per cent.
Georgia, which has never before held a fairly contested presidential election, voted Saturday in snap polls called by Saakashvili in response to charges that he was behaving like a dictator by declaring a state of emergency last November.
"Georgia had passed a maturity test and proved that it is a real state and a vibrant democracy," Saakashvili told journalists.
Though it's far less than the 96 per cent mandate he won four years ago following the Rose Revolution, it brings Saakashvili back — somewhat chastened — for a second term which he has pledged to devote to fighting the tiny Caucasus nation's desperate poverty, steering it into NATO and bringing two rebel regions to heel.
Opposition leaders say they will not accept the result, but will seek redress through the courts rather than return to the rolling street demonstrations that triggered a state of emergency last November, accompanied by police violence, the arrest of leading Saakashvili critics and closure of independent media outlets.
"We face terror," Gachechiladze told the meeting. "We will tell Mikhael Saakashvili that it's impossible to defeat the Georgian people. We will defend our vote by legal means."
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sent 400 observers, certified the voting as "consistent with international standards," but noted that the campaign had been marred by "lack of trust and pervasive allegations of violations."
Four years ago Saakashvili swept into office amid euphoric hopes, after weeks of street protests over an allegedly rigged parliamentary election compelled former president Eduard Shevardnadze to resign.
Experts give Saakashvili's first term a mixed report card, including good marks for fighting corruption, improving ties with the West and persuading one of Georgia's three breakaway regions, Adjaria, to peacefully return to government control.