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Georgia leader eyes reviving democracy

Presidential vote too close to call

Mikhail Saakashvili cut short his 5-year term. Mikhail Saakashvili cut short his 5-year term.
Email|Print| Text size + By Lynn Berry
Associated Press / January 5, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia - Electricity shortages regularly threw Georgia into darkness before Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president four years ago and set out to transform the bankrupt former Soviet republic into a modern European state.

Saakashvili, his image now tarnished, wants his countrymen to remember those dark days when they vote today in a presidential election that is looking too close to call.

As if to underline the changes since he took office, the center of the Georgian capital glitters from a multitude of lights strung around buildings, monuments and trees in celebration of New Year's Day and Orthodox Christmas.

The 40-year-old, US-educated incumbent is fighting not only to remain in office but to prove to his critics that he is still the democratic leader once so beloved in his homeland and admired in the West.

Opponents accuse him of ignoring the poor and showing a tendency toward authoritarianism.

They took their accusations to the streets in November, holding peaceful demonstrations for five days before police violently dispersed them and Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency that included banning independent television news broadcasts.

The crackdown angered many Georgians and called into question Saakashvili's commitment to democracy.

Saakashvili defused the crisis by calling an early election, cutting short his five-year term.

His challenge is to win an outright majority today and avoid a runoff two weeks later that would allow the opposition, now split among six challengers, to unite behind one candidate.

A survey released Thursday by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a US polling firm hired by Saakashvili's campaign, forecasts that the president will get 52 percent of the vote. But with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points, the poll is inconclusive on his chances of winning in the first round.

His toughest competition is Levan Gachechiladze, a member of parliament who built a business producing wine.

Gachechiladze represents an opposition coalition that wants to do away with the presidency. If a parliamentary system is established, as the coalition wants, he would step down.

"I am 43 years old and I never lie," he told supporters Thursday. "I will be gone. It's not a fight for me, for my presidency. It's a fight for democracy."

He is running in tandem with Salome Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat who once served as Saakashvili's foreign minister. She would become his prime minister and then leader of the country if the presidency were abolished.

She said nine opposition parties united behind Gachechiladze because he is the least political candidate in the sense that he does not belong to any party.

"I am a more political figure," Zurabishvili said in an interview in the elegant lobby of a Tbilisi hotel. "I am the leader of a political party and I also have experience with international diplomacy."

She and other opposition leaders say Saakashvili's team is planning to rig the election, and they say their supporters are ready to return to the streets tomorrow if the vote is not free and fair. However, the Tbilisi mayor's office refused to grant permission for protests on the city's main avenue, a move that could raise new anger among those who believe authorities are suppressing the opposition. The opposition's protest plans also have been undermined by a scandal that has discredited one of the leading candidates, billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili.

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