Georgians voted under sunny skies Monday in a parliamentary election seen as a political crossroads, for this former Soviet republic, a rare democracy in the region.
The hotly contested vote is the biggest challenge yet for the eight-year rule of Mikheil Saakashvili, a close ally of Europe and the United States.
Saakashvili’s term expires early next year, and the winning group in today’s elections will win the right to appoint a prime minister under a new system in which the nation’s paramount ruler is to be the prime minister.
Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has mounted a sudden, and strong, challenge to the president.
Tbilisi company worker Tea Konladze is one voter who has migrated to Ivanishvili and his Georgia Dream coalition. After voting, she talked to VOA.
“He is a hope for Georgia,” she said. “He will give a great calm. And, I think, he will give the population, society, a much better life.”
On Saturday, a massive rally of 100,000 Ivanishvili supporters in Tbilisi underlined what polls indicate: the opposition is expected to win the capital.
But Saakashvili has deep working class support.
A Tbilisi driver, Temuri, praises the Georgian president for fighting corruption, and bringing stability and jobs to Georgia. He says he no longer has to pay bribes to police and inspectors. He says President Saakashvili promotes Georgia overseas and brings in tourists and foreign investors. He says Georgia will be better off sticking with a proven performer.
During the campaign, the government fought hard against Ivanishvili. Government agencies took away his citizenship, imposed $60 million in fines, and jailed militants for his coalition. This did not stop the challenger. And in recent days, the opposition was boosted by video clips showing jail guards abusing prisoners.
One voter who asked that her full name not be used said the videos pushed her to change her vote. “I changed my mind,” she said after voting in Tbilisi.
“It is impossible to live in such conditions when you are afraid, when you are scared everywhere, every time, you can not speak, you can not always whisper not to be heard. It is very difficult," she said.
At the Saturday rally, Ivanishvili said he smelled victory.
"Saakashvili's system must be destroyed,” he told the crowd massed on Tbilisi’s main avenue, Rustaveli. “The fate of the country is being decided at these elections.”
Early voting was peaceful. Leander van Delden, from Holland, chairs the European Institute for Democratic Participation, a student observer movement.
“At the moment, things are going fine,” he said after voting began Monday. “Minor violations are taking place, but it is still only four hours into the elections.”
Georgia has a rocky political history. Two decades ago, violent demonstrations led to independence from the Soviet Union. Since then, street protests have overthrown two elected presidents. Four years ago, Georgia lost a war with Russia and two provinces to Russian control.
In recent weeks, the election campaign polarized this nation of 4.5 million people in two opposing camps. Analysts fear if the results are close and the perception of fraud is high, the losing side could resort to violence.
Supporters of an opposition Georgian Dream coalition celebrate exit poll results in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2012.
Georgian billionaire and opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, left, celebrates with supporters at his office in Tbilisi Georgia, October 1, 2012.
Opposition supporters reacts on the central square during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2012.
Georgians vote during Parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tbilisi, October 1, 2012. Voters in Georgia are choosing a new parliament in a heated election that will decide the future of Saakashvili's government.
Lines at a polling station in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 1, 2012.
An elderly woman casts her ballot at her home in the village of Sartichala in Georgia's Kakhety region, October 1, 2012.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, his wife Sandra Roelofs, and his son Nikoloz at a ballot box before voting in Tblisi, October 1, 2012.
Leader of the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, addresses the media in Tbilisi October 1, 2012.
Bidzina Ivanishvili and his wife Ekaterine Khvedelidze pray in a church in Tbilisi, October 1, 2012.
Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition attend an election rally in Tbilisi September 29, 2012.