Ex-Soviet Georgia votes in parliamentary elections tomorrow under the shadow of rising tensions with Moscow and fears of post-election unrest.
Polls show pro-Western Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement likely to retain its majority in the 150-seat parliament against an opposition fractured by infighting.
But with Saakashvili counting on Western support in an increasingly bitter conflict with Russia, the vote will also be a crucial test of his country’s democratic credentials.
Tensions over Russia’s support for Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia have reached fever pitch ahead of the election. Saakashvili says the two countries had come close to war.
Diplomats and analysts warn that tomorrow’s vote will have to be conducted fairly if Georgia is to get continued Western support in the row.
Georgia’s opposition is already alleging the vote has been fixed and warning of post-election demonstrations, raising the specter of a repeat of violent clashes last year between riot police and anti-government protesters. An ancient Christian country of soaring mountain peaks and deep traditions, Georgia has suffered through civil wars, the loss of two breakaway regions and repeated political turmoil since gaining its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Saakashvili has won praise for sweeping economic reforms since coming to power in 2004 after the peaceful Rose Revolution and Georgia’s economy grew by 12 percent last year. His youthful government has also been called a beacon of democracy in the often corrupt and authoritarian former Soviet Union. David Bakradze, a former foreign minister who is leading the United National Movement in the election, said Saakashvili’s party is wooing voters with promises of more economic growth.
“We are focused on the fight against poverty, the creation of new jobs and infrastructure programs,” he said.
But opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze said economic reforms have only benefited a small few, mostly in the capital, Tbilisi, and accused authorities of using their control over the media, bureaucracy and election commissions to fix the vote.
“We already know this election is being rigged,” he said. “We will bring people into the center of Tbilisi to defend their votes against this falsification.”
In moves that drew condemnation from his Western allies, Saakashvili in November sent riot police to suppress an opposition protest, imposed a brief period of emergency rule and shut down a critical television station.
His subsequent re-election in a snap presidential vote this January was tarnished by opposition allegations of fraud. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is sending 550 observers to monitor the vote, has already warned of violations.
In a pre-election report, the OSCE said it had substantiated some claims of “widespread intimidation, among others of candidates, party activists and state employees, especially teachers; illegal campaigning by public servants and abuse of administrative resources.”
Walking along Tbilisi’s elegant Rustaveli Avenue, musician David Takaishvili said he feared post-election violence could tarnish Georgia’s reputation abroad.
“There are too many strong emotions, on all sides,” said Takaishvili, who said he planned to the vote for the moderate opposition Republican Party. “We need to move on from all this anger so we can focus on making Georgia a better country and on bringing us closer to Europe.”