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Saakashvili battles billionaire in Georgia poll showdown

27 september 2012, 16:51
0
Georgia votes in parliamentary polls Monday with President Mikheil Saakashvili's party facing a billionaire-led opposition in a test of the ex-Soviet state's democracy overshadowed by a torture scandal, AFP reports.

Outrage over the beating and rape of prisoners damaged Saakashvili's ruling party just before the vote, sparking protests and international condemnation while raising fears of post-poll turmoil in the small Western-backed republic.

Both Saakashvili and his billionaire challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili have vowed to win outright after a bitter campaign between the main opponents that was described by OSCE election observers as "confrontational and rough".

"In this election we're seeing a clash of two very powerful personalities, two very big egos who both want to defeat the other and don't want to compromise," Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told AFP.

Opposition coalition chief Ivanishvili accuses Saakashvili of establishing an authoritarian regime; the Georgian president says his tycoon opponent would end the country's modernisation programme and send it back to its corrupt and chaotic past.

Before the torture scandal erupted last week, most opinion polls gave Saakashvili's United National Movement the lead over Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream bloc.

It remains unclear however how the outrage over the prison torture videos will affect the vote.

The US and EU have called for fair polls that will advance Georgia's ambitions to join Western institutions.

Saakashvili has promised the "most free, most transparent" polls since Georgia became independent in 1991. Ivanishvili however has alleged that the electoral environment has been rigged in favour of the ruling party, and has threatened mass protests.

--- 'Polarisation at extreme levels' ---

Analysts say that although the campaign has been highly competitive, its divisive antagonism has highlighted shortcomings in Georgia's fragile democracy.

"Polarisation in society and intolerance towards political rivals has reached extreme levels," independent Georgian analyst Ghia Nodia told AFP.

The poll is crucial because constitutional changes will boost parliament and the prime minister's powers and reduce the president's role when Saakashvili's two-term rule ends in 2013.

Georgia, located on a strategic pipeline route that takes Caspian Sea oil and gas to Europe, is a major recipient of aid from the US and the EU.

It also has ambitions to join NATO, something which has enraged neighbour Russia.

Since independence from the Soviet Union, the mountainous Caucasus state of 4.5 million people has gone through economic collapse and civil war. It has also suffered repeated outbreaks of political unrest, which have seen two presidents deposed.

Its most recent conflict, a five-day war with Russia in 2008, saw it effectively lose two Kremlin-sponsored breakaway provinces, where Moscow has now stationed thousands of troops.

The ruling party has accused Ivanishvili, who made his $6.4 billion fortune in Russia, of aiding the Kremlin's interests, something the tycoon has denied. He says that while he wants to restore relations with Moscow, he is pro-Western.

Poverty and unemployment were the main campaign issues, with the rival candidates offering populist promises of big spending on social welfare and job creation.

The battle has also been fought in the US and the EU. Both candidates have used lobbyists to promote their opposing visions of Georgia in the corridors of Washington and Brussels.

The United National Movement held 119 of 150 seats in the outgoing parliament. It has controlled Georgia since the 2003 'Rose Revolution' that ousted president Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister.

Led by the charismatic Saakashvili, it instituted radical reforms that cut corruption, created new infrastructure and started to revive Georgia's devastated economy.

But the reforms angered some Georgians who felt sidelined by the dash for change and riot police were sent in to break up protests in 2011 and 2007. That unsettled Western allies, who had seen Saakashvili as a pioneering post-Soviet democrat.

Voting, which starts at 0400 GMT Monday and ends at 1600 GMT, will be monitored by international observers from the OSCE.

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