Georgians vote Saturday in a snap presidential poll that will see Mikheil Saakashvili, a key Western ally in the strategic Caucasus region, bidding to rescue his presidency after a violent crackdown on opposition protests.
Georgia, already under a Russian economic embargo, also risks angering Moscow with what analysts say will be a resounding “yes” in a referendum being held at the same time to decide whether the ex-Soviet republic and US ally wants to join NATO.
Diplomats say the election is a chance for Georgia to recover some of its reputation as one of the most reformist and democratic countries in the former Soviet Union.
That image was badly tarnished in November when police fought running battles with thousands of anti-government protesters and Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency lasting nine days.
“These elections, the first competitive elections in recent Georgian history, are an important step in getting Georgia back on the democratic path and promoting Georgia’s trans-Atlantic aspirations,” a Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, told AFP.
Saakashvili, who was elected with 96 percent support in 2004 after the peaceful, pro-Western Rose Revolution, is the clear frontrunner in a field of six.
But Saakashvili is nonetheless in the toughest political fight of his presidency and analysts say voters may punish him by denying him a majority win and forcing a run-off vote.
Hundreds of Western observers, meanwhile, will be watching to see if the vote is conducted fairly. Some have already raised concerns about an election campaign marked by allegations of state abuse and media bias.
Fears of unrest after the vote are also running high. Georgia could plunge into political turmoil if opposition leaders declare the vote a fraud and call for thousands of people to restart street protests.
Watching as his young daughter skated on an outdoor rink set up outside the Georgian parliament, Gia Logidze, 39, said he hoped the elections would proceed peacefully.
“Georgia has suffered enough in the last 15 years. What we need now is peace, stability and democracy,” Logidze said, adding that while he didn’t approve of police actions during the unrest, he would nonetheless vote for Saakashvili.
Saakashvili faces five opponents, with former wine entrepreneur Levan Gachechiladze the most serious contender. Gachechiladze, a former close ally of Saakashvili, was chosen by nine of the 10 opposition parties that organized November’s protests as their joint candidate.
Badri Patarkatsishvili, a controversial tycoon accused by authorities of plotting a coup, announced on December 27 that he was withdrawing from the race at the request of other opposition groups.
Gachechiladze and other critics have accused Saakashvili of using government resources to back his campaign and block the efforts of opposition candidates.
Most public opinion polls have shown Saakashvili with the support of about 40 percent of decided voters, followed by Gachechiladze with about 10 percent. At least a quarter of voters were still undecided in most polls.
NATO membership is expected to be roundly endorsed in the plebiscite, a non-binding vote aimed at measuring public opinion and sending a message to both the West and Russia, which is infuriated by Georgia’s foreign policy.
A poll by the International Republican Institute this fall showed that only six percent of Georgians opposed joining the alliance.
A second plebiscite on when to hold parliamentary elections has garnered little attention during the campaign. Voters will be asked whether they support holding the elections next spring instead of next fall as planned — a key demand of opposition leaders during November’s protests.
A presidential candidate will need at least 50 percent of the vote to win outright on January 5. If no candidate wins a majority, a second round of voting must be held two weeks later.
About 3.4 million people are registered to vote, according to the Central Elections Commission (CEC). At least 50 percent of registered voters must take part for the election to be valid.
Polling stations will open at 8 am (0300 GMT) and close at 8 pm (1500 GMT). The CEC will begin announcing results five hours after polls close.Top