TBILISI, Georgia (AP) _ Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze appears to have won presidential elections, with early returns showing him far ahead of rival candidates, an election official said Monday.

Shevardnadze was taking up to 80 percent of the vote in western Georgia, said Vano Kiguradze, head of the Central Election Commission. He didn't say how much of the vote had been counted, but said he believed the 67-year-old former Soviet foreign minister had won.

``I have been trying to unite people,'' Shevardnadze, looking tired, said on national television Monday morning. ``If 70 percent are united around one idea, then I'm happy.''

The election commission said voter turnout for the election Sunday, which also picked a 235-seat parliament, was 64.24 percent. About 3.2 million Georgians were eligible to vote in the mountainous former Soviet republic.

Five candidates competed for the presidency, and nearly 3,000 were running for parliament. Elections in 10 of Georgia's 85 electoral districts have been postponed indefinitely because they are in the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Shevardnadze, who escaped a bomb attack in August, rode to his polling station Sunday in Tbilisi's Vake district in a bulletproof Mercedes-Benz that was a gift from the German government.

Shevardnadze campaigned on a platform that only he can guarantee Georgia's recent _ and still fragile _ stability.

The nation of 5.5 million people bordering the Black Sea is still recovering from four ethnic and civil wars since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

But it has also seen a remarkable transformation in the last few months under Shevardnadze, who returned to rule his country in 1992 and now heads the republic as chairman of parliament.

Firefights between warlords no longer rattle Tbilisi nightly as they once did. A bus ride is now paid for with shiny coins in a new currency, the lari, rather than a wad of grimy Soviet bills.

The mood of cautious optimism was evident in the rustbelt town of Rustavi, about 20 miles south of Tbilisi. The steel plant here is operating at 20 percent of capacity, and dilapidated apartment blocks are a picture of post-Soviet decay.

But despite their meager salaries, many workers still cast their ballot for Shevardnadze. ``I don't see any other candidates,'' said 39-year-old steel worker Fridon Tsviravashvili.

While Shevardnadze may win the presidency, he is not assured a compliant parliament.

The tough transition to a market economy and anger over Shevardnadze's handling of Abkhazia _ former home to some 250,000 refugees _ mean that opposition parties are likely to win a number of parliamentary seats.

``The new parliament will have real power,'' said Irina Sarishvili, 32, who heads the opposition National Democratic Party. She has a bullet lodged near her heart from an assassination attempt last year that killed her husband.

If her party does well as expected, she plans to oppose Shevardnadze on a whole range of issues, including his decision to accept Russian military bases in Georgia for 25 years.