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Polls Open In Key Georgian Vote

September 30, 2012
Polling stations have opened in Georgia, where the voting is being seen as a test of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s long tenure and competing visions of the country’s political course.

Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which currently holds nearly 80 percent of the seats in parliament, is competing for control of the legislature with tycoon-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition.

Most observers see the race as too close to call.

The election is seen as crucial because — with Saakashvili’s second and final term to end next year — the country’s political system is being altered to give more power to parliament and prime minister.

Saakashvili rose to power in 2004 after the Rose Revolution that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister.

But critics have accused Saakashvili of subsequently monopolizing power and criticized him for leading Georgia — a country of 4.4 million — into a disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008.

In a speech on Georgian television on the eve of voting, Saakashvili urged voters to cast their ballots “based on reason and not on emotions.” He called election day “a very important and crucial question is to be decided: which country we want to have. And even more, if we want to have our own country at all.”

At a mass rally in Tbilisi on September 29, Ivanishvili — who made his fortune in Russia — countered the president’s contention that he will take Georgia back under Russian domination.

“We are the team which you can trust,” Ivanishvili said. “We are the team that will take the power into our hands and use it for the benefit of the people. We should win in elections.”

Opposition leaders urged voters to go to the polls, saying a high turnout would help “prevent possible falsifications.�

Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II expressed hope that the elections would “proceed peacefully, and its result will not be falsified.”

OSCE observers have described the election campaign as “confrontational and rough.”

“We have said publicly, as the parliamentary assemblies gather here to observe these elections, that we want this to be a calm process, that we want the election to be decided in the ballot boxes, not on the streets,” OSCE Parliamentary Assembly spokesman Neil Simon said ahead of the voting.

The last time Georgia held parliamentary elections, in 2008, OSCE observers said the poll was marred by a number of flaws.

The run-up to the October 1 vote has seen mass protests against police brutality in prisons after a video emerged of prison abuse.

Fourteen political parties and two blocs are standing for the 150-seat parliament, which is elected for a four-year term.

Seventy-seven seats will go to politicians elected on party tickets, and the remaining 73 will be selected in individual races.

In the party-list voting, a party needs to win at least 5 percent of the vote to gain representation in parliament, and a bloc needs to win at least 7 percent.

Under Georgia’s election code, elections are recognized valid regardless of the turnout.

With additional reporting by Reuters, AFP, and ITAR-TASS
Copyright © 2012, RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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