TBILISI, GeorgiaTurnout was heavy for parliamentary elections in this former Soviet republic Monday, and the capital braced for demonstrations by the opposition, whose leader warned that his followers will be on the lookout for vote rigging.
Voting nevertheless appeared to be peaceful across the country Monday, Western election monitors said, as interest in the election was aroused by a prison scandal that has dented the popularity of the pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili in the past two weeks.
Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesA man leaves an election booth at a polling station in Tbilisi Oct. 1. Georgia voted in parliamentary polls today as President Mikhail Saakashvili's party clashed with a billionaire tycoon in the strongest challenge to its rule since coming to power in 2004.
Pollsters say the ruling party of the pro-Western Mr. Saakashvili is still likely to win a majority of the 150 seats in parliament, but government advisers said Monday they expect the popular vote to be close. Mr. Saakashvili's opponent, a billionaire banking tycoon who made his fortune in Russia, is also predicting victory for his party, Georgian Dream, and has called for his supporters to take to the streets to protest any indication of fraud.
Final results for the vote, which represent the biggest challenge to Mr. Saakashvili's power since he became president, won't be released until Tuesday.
Mr. Saakashvili, who was swept to power in 2004 following the Rose Revolution, told voters Monday that the outcome will provide an example to other Soviet states by proving that a Western-style democracy can survive in a former Soviet republic.
"A lot of things are being decided right now in our country, for the region, for the development, for the future not only of this nation, but for what happens to the European dream in this part of the world," Mr. Saakashvili said as he cast his ballot Monday. His term ends next year, and legal changes will shift more power to the parliament and prime minister.
While Mr. Saakashvili is widely credited for rooting out corruption in government bureaucracy and police force in Georgia, the bitter parliamentary contest exposed some fault lines in his support base. Leaked videotapes of prison beatings and rapes last month prompted a public outcry, and Mr. Saakashvili's government has been scrambling to contain the scandal with firings and arrests of prison officials.
Mr. Saakashvili's main political opponent, banking tycoon by Bidzina Ivanishvili, called for supporters to gather in the capital in the evening to listen to the first poll results. Small knots of people began gathering downtown about an hour before voting finished.
Mr. Ivanishvili has predicted that the elections would give Georgia a new governmentalthough he also said he was sure the vote was being rigged in the government's favor.
"For the first time Georgians are making a 'nearly' democratic choice," Mr. Ivanishvili said. "I say 'nearly' because the authorities have already committed lots of violations."
OSCE observers described the campaign running up to the vote as "confrontational and rough." The group will give its first assessment of the polling at a news conference Tuesday. Write to Alan Cullison at firstname.lastname@example.org