updated 1/5/2008 9:43:40 PM ET 2008-01-06T02:43:40

President Mikhail Saakashvili headed for victory in Saturday's election, according to an exit poll in this former Soviet republic where he is fighting accusations of authoritarian tendencies four years after coming to power as a champion of democracy.

Saakashvili's supporters waved flags and tooted car horns in the capital after the exit poll showed him winning 53.8 percent of the vote. But the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points — casting doubt on whether the president would hang onto the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff.

The opposition called for protests Sunday, claiming the vote was rigged and the exit poll falsified. Saakashvili's leading challenger, Levan Gachechiladze, received 28.3 percent of the vote, according to the exit poll.

Saakashvili called for reconciliation in a speech to supporters at celebratory concert.

"I'm extending my hand to those who voted for me and to those who took part in the elections," he said.

Led street protests in 2003
The U.S.-educated Saakashvili led mass street protests that ousted a Communist-era veteran from power following fraudulent elections in late 2003. He won a January 2004 election with more than 96 percent of the vote and set out to transform the bankrupt country into a modern European state.

Now the Rose Revolution hero, who was much lauded in the West, is accused by his opponents at home of sidelining his critics and displaying an authoritarian bent.

After casting his ballot in Tbilisi, Saakashvili said he was dedicated to having a free and fair election. "We are committed to having Georgia as a beacon of democracy in our part of the world," he said.

The head of an international election monitoring mission said about two hours before the polls were to close that the election appeared fair.

"From what we're seeing now ... there does not appear to be anything to suggest there is an election being stolen," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat heading a mission sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Saakashvili's opponents took to the streets in November, holding peaceful demonstrations for five days before police violently dispersed them. Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency that included banning independent TV news broadcasts.

Anger at crackdown
The violent crackdown angered many Georgians and called into question Saakashvili's commitment to democracy. Saakashvili defused the crisis by calling an early election, cutting short his own five-year term.

Opposition leaders said the campaign was held under unfair conditions and claimed there were widespread violations during the vote.

Gachechiladze, speaking on television early Sunday, claimed he had won in most precincts and the vote count was being held under conditions of "terror." He called for protests Sunday afternoon, urging "all of Georgia to come to make sure we don't lose our country."

A runoff vote could allow the opposition, now split among six candidates, to unite behind Gachechiladze, a businessman and lawmaker.

Gachechiladze, 43, represents an opposition coalition that wants to do away with the presidency. If a parliamentary system is established, as the coalition wants, he would step down.

Casting his ballot in Tbilisi, David Machavariani, 22, said he was voting for Gachechiladze because he wants to abolish the presidency.

"I want a strong prime minister and a strong government," said Machavariani.

Scandal in the opposition
The opposition has been undermined by a scandal that has discredited one of the leading candidates, billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili. He has been accused of plotting to overthrow the government and has acknowledged offering large sums of money to police if they side with protesters. Georgian authorities say he offered $100 million.

The exit poll showed Patarkatsishvili finishing third with 6.2 percent of the vote.

Saakashvili says the election has put at stake his plan to transform Georgia into a country worthy of membership in NATO and the European Union. Sixty-one percent of the respondents polled said they approved of joining the Western military alliance.

During his four years in office, he has cracked down on organized crime and corruption, modernized the police force and the army, restored steady supplies of electricity and gas, and improved roads. The result has been annual economic growth of about 10 percent and a steady rise in foreign investment.

The economic success has not yet defeated poverty, and after the November protests, Saakashvili made social welfare one of his top priorities.

Niko Jialishvili, a 52-year-old taxi driver, said he voted for Saakashvili.

"He has created jobs. He has raised salaries, pensions," said Jialishvili. "There is light, there is gas, there is everything."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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