TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgians have handed President Mikhail Saakashvili’s allies a big victory in a parliamentary election–bolstering his mandate to press ahead with reforms but leaving little opposition to scrutinize him.
Despite tension in a wayward province–the election–a rerun of a November poll seen as rigged–proceeded peacefully on Sunday in the volatile Caucasus nation that is set to become a key transport corridor for Caspian oil.
An exit poll for Rustavi-2 television forecast that Saakashvili’s National Movement-Democrats bloc had won 78.6 percent of the vote and no opposition party would clear a seven percent hurdle needed to win seats in parliament.
"The message is Georgia will take the route of dramatic economic and liberal democratic reforms," Saakashvili told reporters. "I’d rather have a bigger opposition representation but it’s not up to me; that’s the will of the people."
A rival exit poll suggested one right-wing pro-business party might have cleared the hurdle. Preliminary official results were due on Monday. Saakashvili–elected president by a landslide in January after leading a bloodless revolution that ousted veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze–has pledged to unite the divided country and stamp out rampant corruption.
The United States–which backs Saakashvili–is keen to see a stable Georgia as the former Soviet republic lies on the route of a Western oil pipeline due to start pumping Caspian oil to the Mediterranean next year without the need to cross Russia.
Initial reports of disruptions to voting in Ajaria–an autonomous province whose leader has been at odds with Saakashvili–were denied by local election officials.
Saakashvili’s success in tapping deep-seated frustration with a post-Soviet history marked by civil wars–corruption and Russian efforts to wield influence has left many opponents discredited and in disarray.
US ambassador Richard Miles had hoped opposition parties would win some seats. "Any democracy needs an opposition in the parliament," he said.
Sunday’s poll was for 150 seats in the 235-seat chamber; the other 85 seats were not nullified after the November vote. If the Rustavi-2 exit poll proves correct–only some deputies elected first time round will provide parliamentary opposition.
Saakashvili’s attempts to bring to heel Aslan Abashidze–leader in Ajaria–had raised tensions in the Black Sea region.
Kalashnikov-toting supporters and military units loyal to Abashidze have increased the danger of armed conflict in a country that has two openly separatist regions–Abkhazia and South Ossetia–which did not participate in the vote.
"For the first time in 10 years the local powers in Ajaria have lost an election," Saakashvili said. "The age of feudalism has ended in Georgia."
For his part–Abashidze accused the government of planning to falsify results in Ajaria to prevent his Revival party returning to parliament. Ajaria has jealously guarded its autonomy and control of the oil-exporting sea port at Batumi.