Georgians on Monday started voting in parliamentary polls with the ruling party facing a billionaire-led opposition in a tense contest after a torture scandal, a correspondent reported.
President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling party was damaged by jail torture revelations which sparked protests and boosted billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition ahead of the vote, which is seen as a test of the ex-Soviet state’s democracy.
The bitter showdown between the powerful opponents in country of 4.5 million people, described by OSCE election monitors as “confrontational and rough”, has raised fears of post-poll unrest amid a highly polarised political atmosphere.
Georgia’s main backers, the US and the EU, have called for a fair vote and emphasised that democratic progress is crucial for the small Caucasus republic’s ambitions to join Western institutions like Nato.
Saakashvili has promised the “most free, most transparent” polls since Georgia became independent in 1991.
Ivanishvili, however, has alleged that the electoral environment was rigged in favour of the ruling party and has threatened protests if Western observers don’t declare a fair vote.
The polls are crucial for Georgia’s future because its parliament and prime minister will become stronger and the presidency’s powers will be significantly reduced under constitutional changes that come into force after Saakashvili’s two-term rule ends next year.