TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgians voted in a parliamentary election on Wednesday that the West says will be a test of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s democratic credentials as he pushes for NATO membership.
The small ex-Soviet state, with a booming $10 billion economy, lies at the heart of the Caucasus where the United States and Russia vie for influence over a key transit route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.
Georgia has riled Russia by the push to join NATO and a row has erupted with Moscow over the rebel regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which have broken away from Tbilisi and see Russia as their main protector.
Georgia’s image as a rare beacon of democracy in the former Soviet Union was tarred in November when the pro-Western Saakashvili sent in riot troops to crush protests. Opponents said he rigged a January presidential poll, a charge he denies.
The U.S.-educated lawyer says the parliamentary vote must be “beautiful” and opinion polls show his United National Movement party will win a majority in the 150-seat parliament.
But the opposition says authorities are planning to rig the poll and said 100,000 people would come out on Wednesday night in Tbilisi to protest against falsification of the election.
“They are doing everything to falsify the polls,” Levan Gachechiladze, the leader of the opposition coalition, said after casting his vote.
“In the evening we will hold a huge rally — 100,000 people will come out and we are going to announce the true results of the poll.”
Voting started at 0800 (0400 GMT) and polls close at 2000 local time. Voters queued calmly to vote in central Tbilisi.
Forecasts carried out for Saakashvili’s party showed it would get 54 percent of the vote with 19 percent for the United Opposition Council.
“I will be voting for Saakashvili’s party because I am voting for stability — they at least showed us they are able to do something good in this country and the opposition just talk all the time,” said Zurab Melikidze, a 78-year-old pensioner waiting to vote in central Tbilisi.
Saakashvili became the darling of the West after he swept to power in the peaceful 2003 “Rose” revolution, promising market reforms, a greater adherence to democracy and re-orienting his country of 4.5 million towards the European mainstream.
The opposition says Saakashvili’s rhetoric about democracy masks his intolerance of dissent and said the revolution that swept him to power was a U.S.-managed farce.
“There will be no new Rose Revolution here because I don’t like roses. The Rose Revolution and the democratic revolution is a farce — this was a U.S. experiment,” said opposition leader Gachechiladze.
NATO, which has offered Tbilisi a path to eventual membership, has said it will be watching to ensure the election will be fair.
The West’s main election monitor said in a report it had substantiated several cases of intimidation by state employees seeking support for Saakashvili’s party and that news coverage by television stations was skewed in favor of the ruling party.
In his campaign, Saakashvili, 40, has concentrated on pledges to eradicate poverty in Georgia. About one third of people live below the official poverty line.
Georgians are unhappy with soaring prices for fuel and food. The opposition says Saakashvili has failed to tackle unemployment and that high-level corruption remains rampant.
External relations also feature in the campaign. Saakashvili closed his campaign by warning that Georgia’s enemies wanted to use the election to sow discord.
Giant neighbor Russia last month deepened ties with the separatist regions and sent more troops to Abkhazia, prompting criticism from the United States, Georgia’s main big power ally.
The opposition say Saakashvili has unnecessarily provoked the Kremlin’s ire with his sharp tongue — such as when he referred to former Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a little man in the Kremlin”.