TBILISI, Georgia -- Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western president of Georgia faced with increasing protests among his people, conceded defeat Tuesday after preliminary election returns showed the opposition had won control of parliament and the right to name a powerful new prime minister.
In a televised address, the 44-year-old leader acknowledged that the Georgian Dream coalition led by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili had won, and said his own United National Movement would become the opposition.
"You know well that the views of this coalition were and still remain fundamentally unacceptable for me," he said, "but democracy works in a way that allows the Georgian people to make a decision by a majority."
With nearly half the ballots counted by Tuesday afternoon, the Central Election Commission reported that Georgian Dream had 54.1% of the vote to 41% for Saakashvili's movement.
Ivanishvili said Tuesday in televised remarks that after all the votes are counted, his coalition would most likely control at least 100 of the 150 seats in parliament. The tycoon said he would seek the post of prime minister and that the entire Cabinet would be replaced.
Saakashvili will remain president until the end of his second and final term next October. But in accordance with the constitution he guided to approval a year ago, his powers will be greatly reduced. Parliament will appoint a Cabinet and prime minister responsible for domestic and foreign policy, leaving the president mainly as the commander in chief of the armed forces and arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the government.
Saakashvili's supporters commanded 119 seats in the outgoing parliament, and his critics had accused the president of orchestrating the constitutional reforms with the expectation that he would be in line to become prime minister.
Saakashvili came to power with the Rose Revolution in 2003 and worked to modernize the former Soviet republic and end corruption, in the process fostering the democratic institutions that led to his apparent fall from power.
"It is the first time in the history of Georgia that the opposition takes over resulting from a democratic vote," Ghia Nodia, chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, a think tank based in Tbilisi, said in a phone interview. "This clearly demonstrates how far Georgia has moved over these years in developing democracy, one of the main achievements of Saakashvili's rule."
Ivanishvili, who was branded during the campaign as pro-Moscow, said Monday that "we are obligated to restore the friendly relations with Russia, and we are doing everything for it," a pledge balancing his earlier promise to continue seek a NATO membership for Georgia.
Georgia's relations with Russia had been damaged from the very start of Saakashvili's presidency, which began with the ouster from power of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the Soviet Union. The two countries fought a five-day war in August 2008 when Russian troops invaded Georgia, aiding the autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in their claim of independence -- which only a handful of countries, led by Russia, have recognized.
Analysts agreed the race was more or less even until several videos emerged in September exposing beatings, torture and rape of inmates at a prison in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Saakashvili said the scandal was the handiwork of his foes, but the interior minister resigned.
Observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe characterized the polls as a step toward promoting democracy. "Despite a very polarizing campaign that included harsh rhetoric and shortcomings, the Georgian people have freely expressed their will at the ballot box," said Tonino Picula, the chief OSCE observer.
Downtown Tbilisi was relatively peaceful Tuesday night, with groups of people celebrating the opposition victory and honking their car horns.
Iveta Darsavelidze, a 61-year-old pensioner who voted the Georgian Dream, said that she was happy to see young people concerned about the fate of the nation and protesting without fear.
"I hope that after the victory the coalition will fulfill its campaign promises especially in the social sphere and that we will see fair justice in courts and other freedoms," she said.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who as president ordered the invasion into Georgia in 2008, expressed Moscow's pleasure over the election's projected outcome.
"If these results become a reality, the political landscape of Georgia will get richer," he told journalists. "This can only be welcomed as it probably means that more constructive and responsible forces will appear in parliament."
-- Alexandra Jinjikhashvili in Tbilisi and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow
Photo: Opposition supporters celebrate the anticipated electoral victory of the Georgian Dream bloc in central Tbilisi on Monday night. Credit: Vano Shlamov / AFP/Getty Images