Georgians cast ballots in election seen as test of stability

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A woman studies the ballots during the parliamentary election in Tbilisi

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgians voted for a new parliament on Saturday in an election seen as a test of stability of the ex-Soviet state criss-crossed by strategically important oil and gas pipelines and traditionally buffeted between Russia and the West.

Voting, which got under way at 0000 ET, was brisk, with lines forming outside several polling stations in the capital Tbilisi.

A fifth of Georgian territory remains under the control of pro-Russian separatists following a short war with Russia in 2008 and the economy is emerging from a deep slowdown that has eroded living standards.

Polls suggest the ruling Georgian Dream party, funded by the country’s richest man, is likely to win. But they also show strong support for the opposition United National Movement (UNM) and that many voters are undecided.

President Georgy Margvelashvili did not campaign for any party. “I voted for a Georgian parliament where many political parties will be represented,” Margvelashvili said after voting.

His comment was an indication that he did not vote either for the ruling party or for the main opposition UNM, but for one of the smaller opposition parties.

The pro-Western Free Democrats and the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots may be among those who clear the five percent threshold needed to get into the 150-seat parliament, analysts say.

The pre-election atmosphere in the nation of 3.7 million, a U.S. ally, was marred by a car bomb that targeted an opposition deputy in Tbilisi. Givi Targamadze survived, but five passers-by were injured.

In a separate attack, two men were shot and wounded on Sunday at a speech by Irakly Okruashvili, an independent candidate, in the town of Gori.

TOUGH COMPETITION

“I voted for change and for a better future, for the country where ordinary people are respected,” Marina Kotetishvili, 63, said outside a Tbilisi polling station. She said she had voted for one of the opposition parties.

Both the government and the opposition would like to see Georgia join the European Union and NATO, but such a move would be strongly resisted by Moscow. Georgian Dream also favors stronger ties with Russia.

“I voted for an even better future, stable democratic development, welfare for each of our citizens, European future for our country and faster economic growth,” Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili told reporters after casting his ballot in central Tbilisi.

“The two biggest parties will definitely make it into parliament, but other parties also have some chances and there will be some room for coalition-building,” said Koba Turmanidze, director of the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Research Resource Centre.

Georgian Dream was founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. It came to power in 2012, ending the nine-year rule of former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s UNM.

It was the first peaceful transfer of power since the 1991 Soviet collapse and followed protests over a scandal involving the mistreatment of prison inmates and accusations that Saakashvili, who was feted in the West for his reforms, was behaving in an authoritarian manner.

Under Georgian Dream, dozens of ex-officials have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power, and some Western countries have accused the government of selectively applying justice.

Saakashvili, now a regional politician in Ukraine, is wanted at home on a string of charges, including corruption. He says the charges are politically motivated.

Many Georgians accuse the government of mishandling the economy, which has been hit by a decline in exports and remittances despite expanding by 2.7 percent in the first eight months of this year.

(Editing by Dmitry Solovyov and Stephen Powell)

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