Georgian voters cast ballots Wednesday to elect a new parliament amid the threat of mass protests if the election is perceived as unfair. An exit poll shows the ruling party headed toward victory, in balloting marred by reports of violence and opposition accusations of vote-rigging. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky is following the election from Moscow.
In a televised address before the election, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili sought to reassure Georgians that he would be more responsive to their political demands.
The Georgian leader says whatever the makeup of the opposition after the election, he promises to engage its members more actively in the governing process, to share power, and to increase transparency to reduce polarization and tension in society.
Mr. Saakashvili also promises more meetings and negotiations in place of confrontations, rallies, hunger strikes, and sit-ins that have taken place since last November, when authorities used force to disperse anti-government demonstrations in Tbilisi.
Soon after voting began, the opposition alleged that several of its activists had been beaten at polling stations. Georgian authorities also confirm a deadly shooting at one precinct, but deny any connection to the vote.
Opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze told VOA the activist's daughter was also shot in the incident, which occurred at nine o'clock in the Tsalendjikha district near Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia. Gachechiladze says he cannot yet confirm a motive, but the opposition is demanding an investigation.
Levan Gachechiladze warns that as many as 100,000 protesters will descend on the Georgian capital if the election is shown to be rigged.
Georgia, says Gachechiladze, is a small country and the opposition has representatives in all of the electoral commissions who will provide information about any vote fraud.
The opposition leader notes that elections are a process that includes not only the vote itself, but also the run-up to it. He says unbalanced campaign coverage on national television favored the ruling party, a charge supported in a recent report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Hundreds of international observers are monitoring the Georgian vote, which is seen as a test of the country's democratic credentials. David Bakradze, who heads the list of the ruling United National Movement, recognizes international interest in the election.
The election, says Bakradze, will be a positive step in the consolidation of Georgian society, and will increase international support which his country receives and will allow Georgians to continue their country's reform process.
One-hundred-fifty seats in Parliament are at stake in the election. The ruling party is expected to win a plurality, if not outright majority. Twelve parties and blocs are participating in the vote. Georgian election officials are expected to release preliminary results early Thursday.