Georgians began voting on Saturday in a snap presidential election called by fiery pro-Western reformer Mikheil Saakashvili to face down unrest and restore his democratic credentials.
The election, where Saakashvili faces six challengers, opened under thick snow in the strategic ex-Soviet republic’s ancient capital, Tbilisi.
At a polling station in School Number One, Nodar Zardiashvil (49) said he had voted for Saakashvili, “because he is doing the right thing by taking the country into Nato and the European Union”.
Most Georgians back Saakashvili’s strongly pro-Western course and they were expected to vote overwhelmingly in favour of a non-binding referendum also being held Saturday on joining Nato.
Yet Saakashvili, who came to power in the peaceful Rose Revolution four years ago, faces unprecedented opposition following November’s violent unrest and the calling of the early presidential election.
“We’ve had enough of Saakashvili, November was the last straw,” said Nino Saladze (51) an accountant, after voting for the main challenger, wine entrepreneur Levan Gachechiladze.
Hundreds of foreign election observers have deployed in a major test for democracy in the tiny country of about five million people.
On the eve of the election, Saakashvili appealed for voters to give him a fresh mandate “to lead Georgia to victory” and restore the country’s reputation as a leading democratic reformer in the former Soviet Union.
“We have to show the whole world that Georgian democracy is still alive,” he told 20 000 supporters at a final campaign rally in Tbilisi.
But the opposition accused Saakashvili of having rigged the vote in advance and vowed to take to the streets to protest the result.
Opposition candidates said the outcome had already been determined through a series of campaign violations, including media bias in favour of Saakashvili and the use of state resources to support his campaign.
Polls commissioned by the seven candidates in Saturday’s contest offer conflicting data.
Most analysts believe Saakashvili, a multilingual, United States-trained lawyer, is well ahead of Gachechiladze, who was nominated by nine of the 10 opposition parties that organised November’s demonstrations.
However, polls suggest that up to a quarter of voters are undecided, which means that Saakashvili is not certain to get 50% of ballots — the minimum for avoiding the run-off round two weeks from now.
Washington, the European Union and former imperial master Russia are watching closely, mindful of Georgia’s growing strategic importance.
Major US-backed oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to Turkey run via Georgia, and Saakashvili has defied Russian pressure in applying for Nato membership.
Moscow punished Georgia’s pro-Western course with sweeping economic sanctions in 2006 and also supports armed rebels who control two separatist regions of Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi are likely to rise further after the Nato referendum. — AFP