Early vote count in Georgia puts opposition ahead

LYNN BERRY MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI Associated Press Published:

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) -- Early results in Georgia's parliamentary elections on Tuesday showed the opposition with what appears to be an insurmountable lead as voters turned away from President Mikhail Saakashvili and the party that has been in power for almost nine years.

Returns from a quarter of precincts have the Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili surging ahead with 53 percent of the popular vote. Saakashvili's United National Movement has 42 percent.

The popular vote based on party lists determines 77 of the 150 seats in parliament, with the remaining 73 lawmakers directly elected in their constituencies. Saakashvili had hoped that he would win big in the second category, but preliminary counts in those votes showed the parties relatively evenly matched.

The outcome of Monday's election will determine the future of Saakashvili's pro-Western government because of a constitutional reform that goes into effect next year giving parliament greater powers at the expense of the presidency.

The party that wins the majority in parliament will have the right to name the prime minister. When Saakashvili's second and last presidential term ends a year from now, many of the president's powers will be transferred to the prime minister.

In the meantime, Saakashvili would have a parliament controlled by the opposition for the first time since he was first elected president in early 1994.

If Saakashvili's party loses power, it would be the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history that a government has been changed by the ballot box rather than through revolution.

The opposition has already claimed victory.

"I am more than satisfied because the Georgian people have spoken and we have a very good majority in the Parliament," Georgian Dream spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze said. "I think we have about 93 seats."

Both sides are under pressure to prove their commitment to democracy and have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are due to issue their assessment of the vote Tuesday afternoon.