(Reuters) – Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party swept to victory in dozens of municipal votes on Sunday in the first electoral test for the pro-West leader since he lost a 2008 war to Russia, exit polls showed.
Saakashvili’s party won at least 60 percent of the vote in a series of municipal council elections, beating a fragmented opposition that has struggled to capitalize on public anger over the war and the recession that followed.
Opposition leader Irakly Alasania refused to accept defeat, saying he did not trust the exit polls. Opposition parties said the elections were marred by problems with voter lists, pressure on observers and illegal campaigning by the ruling party.
Europe’s top election watchdog, the OSCE, was due to deliver its report on the vote on Monday.
“The final result of today is that democracy has won in Georgia,” Saakashvili told supporters at his party headquarters. He said he expected the results to show the same level of support for his party as parliamentary polls in May 2008.
A poll for Georgia’s Public Broadcaster said ruling party candidate Gigi Ugulava won re-election as mayor of Tbilisi with 60.4 percent of the vote, setting him up for a possible presidential run in 2013, when Saakashvili is due to step down after a decade in power.
“The victory will provide serious support for the ruling party and their candidate in 2013,” said Tbilisi-based analyst Archil Gegeshidze.
A poll by Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV showed the ruling United National Movement party secured 60 percent of the vote across the country, with the opposition Alliance for Georgia bloc in second place with 16 percent.
“Exit poll results do not reflect the real picture. We are waiting for official results,” Alasania told a news conference.
Relations with former Soviet master Russia remain fraught, with some opposition leaders calling for closer ties in the hope of ending a Russian embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water, and restoring direct flights between the countries.
But an opinion poll showed that jobs and poverty top the list of voter concerns. The Georgian economy shrank 3.9 percent last year, but is expected to grow by up to 5 percent in 2010.
“I’ve voted for stability and social prosperity … Ordinary people don’t care about political games, we care about better social conditions,” said 53-year-old housewife Nino Kvartskhava.
Three election blocs and 14 political parties were battling for the support of 3.5 million eligible voters for seats in 64 municipal councils, including one in the capital.
Western support for the 42-year-old Saakashvili has waned because of his record on democracy and the war, when an assault by Georgia’s U.S.-trained military on the rebel region of South Ossetia triggered a crushing Russian counterstrike.
Saakashvili says he has created a model democracy in a region dominated by rigged polls and long-serving authoritarian leaders. Critics accuse him of monopolizing power, marginalizing the opposition and manipulating the media.
Saakashvili faced down months of protests last year but his United National Movement still enjoys solid support. Opponents are threatening to take to the streets again if they deem the vote unfair, but serious disturbances are not expected.
The opposition does not have a coherent or united platform, and has found it difficult to present voters with an attractive alternative to Saakashvili.
The Central Election Commission said no major irregularities had been registered by 6 p.m. (1400 GMT). It said voter turnout was 40.4 percent at 1300 GMT.
Europe’s top vote watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which found serious shortcomings in the 2008 presidential vote, sent more than 300 observers for the poll.
The United States and European Union are keen to see stability in the volatile South Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to Europe.
(Editing by Noah Barkin and Myra MacDonald)