Georgia president admits election defeat

TBILISI - President Mikheil Saakashvili has admitted his party has lost Georgia's parliamentary election, in a live TV announcement.

He said the Georgian Dream bloc of his main rival, billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, had won Monday's election.

Victory for Mr Ivanishvili means the first democratic transfer of power in Georgia's post-Soviet history.

Mr Saakashvili, who has led the country since 2003, will remain in power until presidential elections next year.

However, under agreed reforms the parliament and prime minister will acquire greater powers than the president after that election.

Early results showed Georgian Dream ahead in the party list vote, which accounts for 77 of the 150 seats.

President Saakashvili said it was clear that Georgian Dream had won a majority.

This is a momentous day for Georgian democracy. But a sad one for President Saakashvili.

It has been a fierce election campaign, with mudslinging on both sides.

There were fears that the results would be disputed, which could have sparked unrest.

By admitting defeat, President Saakashvili is allowing a peaceful transition of power. And for the first time in modern Georgia's history, a change of government is the result of a peaceful election, rather than a revolution.

Western observers are calling these the most credible elections Georgia has ever known.

Mr Saakashvili's party will be in opposition, instead of enjoying the huge majority it has been used to for the past nine years.

And some voters will feel worried about this new government. Mr Ivanishvili is suspected by some of having links to the Kremlin.

Earlier Mr Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man, had already declared victory.

He made his fortune in Russia in the early 1990s, with stakes in the metals industry, banking and later property, including hotels. Forbes business website estimates his wealth at $6.4bn (£4bn).

Mr Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader who champions the free market, has warned that the Georgian Dream bloc will move Georgia away from the West and back into Moscow's sphere of influence. Russia defeated Georgian forces in a brief war in 2008.

In his TV address Mr Saakashvili said "it's clear from the preliminary results that the opposition has the lead and it should form the government - and I as president should help them with this".

His United National Movement would become "an opposition force" and would "fight for the future of our country", he said, acknowledging big differences between it and Georgian Dream.

"Democracy works and the Georgian people take the decision and this is what we deeply respect," he added.

The BBC's Damien McGuinness in Tbilisi says it is a momentous day for Georgia - a day which strengthens the country's democratic credentials. Georgia has experienced much political turmoil since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The ugly election campaign had polarised the country and there were fears that the results would be disputed, our correspondent says.

Observers from the European security organisation OSCE said that "despite a very polarising campaign the Georgian people have freely expressed their will".

Georgia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC) said there had been no grave violations during the voting.

More than half of the country's population has no proper job. Older and poorer Georgians, in particular, are struggling and some feel nostalgic about the Soviet Union.

The OSCE said the election process had "shown a healthy respect for fundamental freedoms... and we expect the final count will reflect the choice of the voters".

However, the statement regretted "detentions and fines of mostly opposition-affiliated campaigners" during the campaign.

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