Saakashvili Faces 'Georgian Dream' in in Key Parliamentary ElectionsWorld | October 1, 2012, Monday // 14:18| views
Georgian billionaire and Georgian Dream opposition coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili (front L) and his wife Ekaterine Khvedelidze (front R) during the parliamentary elections, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 01 October 2012. EPA/BGNES
Georgia votes in hotly-contested parliamentary polls on Monday amid heated rhetoric from the two main political forces and fears of post-election violence.
"This is a historic day for Georgia - its destiny is being decided," said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili after arriving at a polling station in the center of the capital, Tbilisi, with his wife and youngest son, as cited by RIA Novosti. "The country must go forward, and never go back."
Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement (UNM) faces its biggest challenge at the ballot box since it came to power eight years ago: the newly-emerging Georgian Dream coalition, funded and headed by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Voting appeared brisk, at least in Tbilisi, from early morning onwards on Monday, with Georgians queuing outside polling stations throughout this mountain-ringed capital of just over one million.
But there was a palpable tension as the vote got underway. Georgian Dream has said the authorities are preparing a "massive falsification" of the election results, while the UNM has said the opposition is seeking to purchase votes and will attempt to trigger "mass destabilization" after the polls with the aim of seizing power.
Opposition supporters, known commonly throughout Georgia as "dreamers," plan to rally at central Tbilisi's Freedom Square ahead of initial exit polls that are expected at 8pm (4pm GMT). Both state and opposition media have ordered exit polls.
"It's not good that the dreamers are planning to gather in the center," said Tamar Gabashvili, a 26-year-old housewife, as she arrived to cast her ballot a polling station in a leafy Tbilisi district. "It's an explosive situation and no one knows what is going to happen."
The elections have taken on particular importance in the light of a law passed in 2010 that transfers the majority of the president's executive powers to the prime minister. The law comes into force from 2013 when Saakashvili's second term ends. Whoever wins Monday's polls will be able to appoint the prime minister.
Saakashvili's UNM enjoyed a healthy lead in opinion polls until last month, when opposition channels aired explicit footage of male inmates at a Tbilisi jail being sexually assaulted with broom handles. The videos triggered large protests across Georgia and widespread anger at Saakashvili and the UNM.
The torture tapes appear to have caused real damage to the ruling coalition's hopes of reelection. A survey released last week by the German research institute Forsa indicated that 65 percent of voters were now preparing to back Georgian Dream at Monday's polls, while only 25 percent supported Saakashvili's UNM.
RIA Novosti reminds that US-educated lawyer Saakashvili, 44, came to power after a 2003 revolt against the regime led by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and he has attempted to portray Monday's elections as a choice between continued "modernization" and a return to what he dubs the "dark days" of the 1990s, when the former Soviet republic lay within Moscow's sphere of influence.
Ivanishvili, 56, and his supporters accuse Saakashvili of running a dictatorship and say his policies have brought Georgia – a country of 4.5 million that is an important transit route for oil and gas to the West – to the brink of disaster, not least by leading it into a ruinous 2008 war with its vast neighbor, Russia. Critics also say that while Saakashvili has all but eradicated once rife low- and mid-level corruption, high-level graft remains widespread.
And while staunch US-ally Georgia has earned plaudits from the World Bank for its far-reaching business reforms, the opposition says it has done nothing to alleviate poverty, and that the true number of unemployed is far above the official figure which hovers around 15 percent.
But critics say Georgian Dream is little more than a rag-tag alliance of parties with very little in common and that Ivanishvili will be hard-pressed to suppress the more nationalist and xenophobic elements of his coalition should it come to power this month.
Saakashvili has also painted his ultra-wealthy rival, who made much of his money in Russia in the 1990s, as a Kremlin stooge seeking to "return Georgia to Russia's imperial space."
Ivanishvili has dismissed these allegations as "laughable." Like the UNM, Georgian Dream also states NATO and EU membership among its priority policies, although the coalition also pledges to improve relations with Russia.
Ivanishvili backed Saakashvili in the aftermath of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, even funding, he says, the new president's inauguration. And for years the businessman showed little interest in being directly involved in politics, preferring instead to finance charity projects and breed penguins at his mansion in western Georgia.
But the enigmatic tycoon dropped a bombshell into Georgian politics last October when he announced that he would use some of his vast fortune of USD 6.4 B – equivalent to around half the country's GDP – to create an alternative to the UNM, which has been in power for the past eight years.
The authorities responded by stripping him of his Georgian passport in 2011 after revelations that he is also a French citizen. Ivanishvili has said he will take advantage of a law allowing EU nationals who have lived in Georgia for more than five years to hold public office to become prime minister if his opposition coalition triumphs at Monday's polls. He says he will leave office after "one or two years" if his bid for power is successful.
Ivanishvili refused to vote at Monday's polls in protest at what he said was the authorities' "distortion" of the constitution, and said the law on EU nationals had been approved especially for him to rescue Georgia's international image.
Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia since 2008, when it fought and lost a five-day war with its powerful neighbor over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Russia subsequently recognized the sovereignty of South Ossetia and another breakaway republic, Abkhazia. But a mere handful of countries have so far followed suit.
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti points out that while Russia has not backed either side at the polls, there is great personal antipathy between Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in the aftermath of the South Ossetia conflict that he would like to "hang him [Saakashvili] by the balls."
And European Union military monitors said last week that Russian troops had been building up at the administrative border with South Ossetia and that a Russian helicopter had briefly landed on Georgian-controlled territory. Moscow said the helicopter had touched down in Georgia "by mistake."
A major military exercise carried out last month by Russia in its North Caucasus region also unsettled Tbilisi, although Moscow says the drills had been planned well before the announcement of the October 1 elections.
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