Georgia goes to the polls
on 01/10/2012 13:32:43
Emotions are running high in an election that is competitive not only for Georgia but for much of the former Soviet Union. If Mr Saakashvili's party loses, it would be the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history that a government has been changed not through revolution but at the ballot box.
The governing party, which has dominated parliament, is up against a diverse opposition coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has posed the most serious challenge to Mr Saakashvili since he came to power almost nine years ago.
With the opposition accusing the government of violations aimed at manipulating the vote, Mr Saakashvili is under pressure to prove his commitment to democracy by holding a free and fair election.
Both sides have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.
About a million of Georgia's 3.6m eligible voters live in Tbilisi, the capital, where opposition support is strongest. Queues formed outside some polling stations in the morning, and the Central Election Commission said turnout in the first four hours of voting had surpassed 25%.
Mr Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, has said he would pursue these strategic goals while also seeking to restore the ties with Moscow that were severed when the two neighbouring countries fought a brief war in 2008.
Mr Saakashvili has accused his rival of serving Kremlin interests and intending to put Georgia back under Russian domination, which the opposition leader has denied.
After casting his vote, Mr Saakashvili said the election was important not only for Georgia.
"A lot of things are being decided right now in our country, for the region, for the development, for the future not only of this nation, but for what happens to the European dream in this part of the world.
"What happens to the idea of democracy in this part of the world, what happens to the idea of reforms in this part of the world," he said, his Dutch wife and their younger son standing behind him.
The opposition has accused Mr Saakashvili of authoritarian rule.
"Without a doubt, Mr Saakashvili and all of his people should leave," said Mamuka Gigienishvili, a 55-year-old physicist who voted in Tbilisi. "We have had enough of him acting like a czar."
Mr Saakashvili came to power after anger over a rigged parliamentary election in November 2003 led to the Rose Revolution and the removal of Eduard Shevardnadze, who had taken power in 1992 after a military coup. Mr Saakashvili won a presidential election in January 2004 with 96% of the vote and re-election four years later.
The latest election sets in motion a change in the political system that will reduce the powers of the presidency. The party that wins the majority in parliament will have the right to name the prime minister.
The bigger shift will come after Mr Saakashvili's second and last term ends next year, when many of the president's powers will be transferred to the prime minister.
If Mr Saakashvili's party wins he has said he does not intend to become prime minister after the presidential election in October 2013. Such a job swap would bring unwelcome comparisons to Russia's Vladimir Putin, who served for four years as prime minister to avoid a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms as president.