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Georgians Vote in Parliamentary Elections - 2003-11-02

Voters in the former Soviet republic of Georgia went to the polls Sunday for a parliamentary election that could be a blow to the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Tensions are running high in the key election.

Many in Georgia see Sunday's vote as a kind of referendum on the rule of Mr. Shevardnadze, who has led the country since 1992.

A one-time Soviet foreign minister credited with helping end the Cold War, Mr. Shevardnadze has long been seen as a source of stability in Georgia, which has been wracked by internal conflicts and tensions in its relations with neighboring Russia.

But the 75-year-old president and his government have now been accused of corruption and failing to crack down on crime. Recent opinion polls gave the pro-government For a New Georgia party only about six percent of the vote, well behind a leading group of opposition parties.

Some opposition leaders have said they believe the authorities will try to rig the outcome as a result.

Authorities say unofficial results are not expected until Monday. But just hours after voting began there were reports that many people had been unable to vote as polling stations ran out of ballots, or closed early.

The opposition also said electoral lists have been altered in areas where their parties are strongest.

Mr. Shevardnadze stood his ground as he cast his ballot in the capital, Tbilisi, saying he had voted for the future of Georgia.

With opposition leaders warning of protests if they feel the vote was unfair, police and military troops were on a heightened state of alert in case of trouble.

Voters are selecting deputies for Georgia's 235-seat parliament, where Mr. Shevardnadze's government now holds a majority. His power will be curtailed if the opposition makes strong gains.

The election also comes in the run-up to a presidential election in two years, in which Mr. Shevardnadze is barred by the constitution from seeking another term.

Famous for its wine and other products, Georgia had the highest per capita income of all the 15 republics in the former Soviet Union.

But now a majority of its five million citizens are having a hard time making ends meet. Unemployment is high and power blackouts have long been common in Tbilisi and elsewhere.

Georgia is now assuming more geopolitical significance due to a new oil pipeline under construction by major western oil companies, which will transport crude oil from the Caspian Sea region to Turkey.