Tbilisi, Georgia 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 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 today, 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.
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.
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 TV early today, claimed he had won in most precincts and the vote count was being held under conditions of "terror."