• Tbilisi - the election is the biggest challenge to Saakashvili's authority since the Rose Revolution (Photo: Thomas Depenbusch)

Georgians go to polls in hotly contested election

01.10.12 @ 09:20

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - The rule of Georgia's incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili is facing one of its toughest challenges as voters go to polls on Monday (1 October).

His main opponent, Bidzina Ivanishvili of the Georgian Dream coalition, gained additional momentum following a prison scandal 12 days ago that sparked protests against the government throughout Tbilisi and other cities.

Both men have diametrically opposed visions on the political direction of the country in a contest that is now near evenly split, reports the Guardian. More power will also be handed over to the parliament and the prime minister following the election.

But fear that violence could erupt at polling stations prompted Eka Zguladze, the interior minister, to step up security.

"I believe that we can ensure an environment on election day free of intimidation and pressure, allowing every voter in Georgia to cast their vote in a peaceful environment," he told the AFP on Sunday.

Saakashvili's pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003 helped weed out corruption and put in place a free-market economy that created wealth for the elite but left many struggling. One third of its population lives below the poverty line.

Increased tax revenues, a more modern armed force, better infrastructure, and an economy that has grown off and on annually by 7 to 9 percent has marked his rule, but so has a crackdown on the opposition, the independent media and a failed attempt to regain control of the breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008.

Russia has since increased its military presence in South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Meanwhile, thousands of Georgian internally displaced persons from the wars in Abkhazia in the 1990s remain in dire living conditions.

Entire families, many of whom lost their homes in the war, have been living for years in an abandoned hospital without water and electricity in Zugdidi, a small town on the Georgian side of the ceasefire line with Abkhazia, just before the war broke out with South Ossetia.

For its part, the European Commission notes that the country's democratic institutions are weak and that the judicial system "remains one of the most problematic areas."

Prison over-crowding and allegations of detainee torture came to a head when a video shot inside a penitentiary and released to a TV network revealed the deplorable treatment of inmates by prison guards.

Ivanishvili, a billionaire, wants to rekindle relations with neighbouring Russia and improve trade. He claimed he would use some of his €4.9 billion fortune to help the poor - a campaign promise that has earned him a large following among the electorate.

On Saturday, some 100,000 of his supporters rallied in downtown Tbilisi.

Ivanishvili's detractors say he has strong ties to Moscow and Georgian criminal bosses.

More than 400 monitors, including a handful of MEPs and EU foreign ministers, will observe the election.

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has the largest delegation, with 290.

"I am sure we will have a fairly good assessment and a fairly good comprehensive view of the electoral process here," an ODIHR spokesperson said.

The ODIHR will deliver a preliminary assessment of the election process on Tuesday.

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