TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Voters in Georgia are choosing a new parliament in a heated election Monday that will decide the future of the pro-Western government of President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Emotions are running high in an election that is competitive not only for Georgia but for much of the former Soviet Union. If Saakashvili's party loses, it would be the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history that a government has been changed not through revolution but at the ballot box.
The governing party, which has dominated parliament, is up against a diverse opposition coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has posed the most serious challenge to Saakashvili since he came to power almost nine years ago.
With the opposition accusing the government of violations aimed at manipulating the vote, Saakashvili is under pressure to prove his commitment to democracy by holding a free and fair election. Both sides have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.
About 1 million of Georgia's 3.6 million eligible voters live in Tbilisi, the capital, where opposition support is strongest. Lines formed outside some polling stations in the morning, and the Central Election Commission said turnout in the first four hours of voting had surpassed 25 percent.
The U.S. ambassador joined calls for a peaceful election. "I encourage the public to remain calm, have faith and be patient while all the results are counted and any challenges are properly evaluated," Ambassador Richard Norland said.
Under Saakashvili, the former Soviet republic has aligned itself with the United States, while striving to join the European Union and NATO one day.
Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, has said he would pursue these strategic goals while also seeking to restore the ties with Moscow that were severed when the two neighboring countries fought a brief war in 2008.
Saakashvili has accused Ivanishvili of serving Kremlin interests and intending to put Georgia back under Russian domination, which the opposition leader has denied.
After casting his vote on Monday, Saakashvili said the election was important not only for Georgia.
"A lot of things are being decided right now in our country, for the region, for the development, for the future not only of this nation, but for what happens to the European dream in this part of the world. What happens to the idea of democracy in this part of the world, what happens to the idea of reforms in this part of the world," he said, his Dutch wife and their younger son standing behind him.
The opposition has accused Saakashvili of authoritarian rule.
"Without a doubt, Saakashvili and all of his people should leave," said Mamuka Gigienishvili, a 55-year-old physicist who voted in Tbilisi. "We have had enough of him acting like a czar."
She said his party "labeled anyone with a different opinion a traitor ... as if only they were able to lead the country in the right direction."
Saakashvili's campaign was hit hard by the release two weeks ago of shocking videos showing prisoners in a Tbilisi jail being beaten and sodomized. The government moved quickly to stem the anger, replacing Cabinet ministers blamed for the abuse and arresting prison staff, but many saw the videos as illustrating the excesses of his government.
Veriko Berishvili, a 49-year-old small business owner, pointed to all that Saakashvili had done to reform Georgia since coming to power in early 2004. She specifically named the disbanding of the corrupt traffic police and creation of a modern force, a widely praised program carried out by Saakashvili's longtime interior minister whom he named prime minister in June.
"I think we should allow this team to fulfill its promises: to improve the situation in agriculture, decide the problem of joblessness, universal health insurance," she said. "Now all of this is being handled by Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili. Look at his baby, the police force. It is the best in the former Soviet Union."
Saakashvili has taken a zero-tolerance approach to crime that has eradicated petty corruption and made the streets safe again. The flip side has been a huge increase in the prison population and the power of the prosecutors, who win convictions in more than 90 percent of cases.
He also enacted reforms and attracted foreign investment that together produced dramatic economic growth. Poverty and unemployment rates, however, remain high.
Ivanishvili, the opposition leader, expressed confidence on Monday that his coalition would win.
"For the first time in Georgian history the Georgian people are managing to conduct really democratic elections, or elections which are very close to being democratic because the government has made many violations already," he said. "There were many violations before election day and I think there will be violations today, too, but the wisdom of the Georgian people and historic experience has helped us to make it possible for the first time to change the government through elections."
Saakashvili came to power after anger over a rigged parliamentary election in November 2003 led to the Rose Revolution and the ouster of Eduard Shevardnadze, who had taken power in 1992 after a military coup. Saakashvili won a presidential election in January 2004 with 96 percent of the vote and reelection four years later.
Monday's election sets in motion a change in the political system that will reduce the powers of the presidency. The party that wins the majority in parliament will have the right to name the prime minister. The bigger shift will come after Saakashvili's second and last term ends next year, when many of the president's powers will be transferred to the prime minister.
If Saakashvili's party wins on Monday, he has said he does not intend to become prime minister after the presidential election in October 2013. Such a job swap would bring unwelcome comparisons to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who served for four years as prime minister to avoid a constitutional ban on more than two consecutive terms as president.
Saakashvili's appointment of Merabishvili was seen as an indication that he may be intending to hand off power to his powerful ally.
Ivanishvili is not running for a seat in parliament but has said that if his Georgian Dream coalition wins he would serve as prime minister at least for a year or two to put his team in place.
Saakashvili's party, the United National Movement, now holds 119 of the 150 seats in parliament.
Slightly more than half of parliament members, 77, are chosen based on how well the parties do in a vote based on party lists. The remaining 73 members are directly elected by majority vote in their constituencies.
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