The U.S.-backed leader of Georgia appears to have faced down the worst crisis of his presidency: defusing a standoff with the opposition by calling an early election while maintaining a state of emergency that has silenced dissent.
Criticized at home and abroad for a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters this week, President Mikhail Saakashvili cast the early election as a concession.
But the Jan. 5 poll date leaves the fractured opposition little time to capitalize on a groundswell of public discontent. And two opposition leaders who could have seriously challenged Saakashvili will be just a few months shy of the minimum campaign age of 35.
Along with his election announcement, Saakashvili also promised Thursday to quickly lift the state of emergency. But Friday he easily won parliamentary approval to extend it for up to 15 days. This will keep nongovernment television news off the air, making it harder for the opposition to mount an effective campaign.
Saakashvili has worked to integrate this former Soviet republic with the West, but his response to the opposition challenge has raised questions about his commitment to democracy.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza headed to Georgia on Friday, telling The Associated Press that he would express serious disappointment in Saakashvili and seek assurances from him and other officials that there will be free and fair elections.
"We urge the government, the president and the parliament of Georgia to lift the state of emergency, restore all media broadcast and have a real and serious discussion with the opposition about how to chart a way forward and strengthen Georgia's democratic institutions," Bryza said.
While many Georgians support Saakashvili's efforts to shake off Russia's influence and take the small Caucasus nation into the European Union and NATO, the president has faced growing discontent. Critics accuse him of abusing power, sidestepping the rule of law and failing to move fast enough to spread growing wealth.
Georgia's economy has expanded under reforms introduced by Saakashvili, but rising prices, especially for food, have hit many hard. The average monthly pension remains at about $30.
Saakashvili's most serious political crisis in his four years in office began Nov. 2, when tens of thousands of people began noisy protests outside parliament to press for changes in the electoral system to give the opposition a bigger voice. They also began calling for his ouster.
After six days of demonstrations, protester numbers had dwindled and police went on the offensive. In an assault broadcast live on television, officers beat protesters with hard-rubber batons and fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd.
Saakashvili then imposed a state of emergency, banning all demonstrations and news broadcasts except on public TV.
"The myth of Saakashvili the democrat, the reformer has been dispelled," said Ivlian Khaindrava, a leader of the opposition Republican Party.
Faced with harsh criticism in Georgia and from the West, Saakashvili called the Jan. 5 presidential ballot and said the opposition's demand for early parliamentary elections would be decided in a referendum at the same time. Both votes had been set for late 2008.
The numerous small opposition parties must rally around one candidate if they are to have any hope of posing a real challenge to Saakashvili.
Time and money are other concerns. They have less than two months to campaign and they will need a significant amount of money to compete with the president, who has the resources of the government bureaucracy at his disposal.
A key financial backer of the opposition, billionaire businessmen Badri Patarkatsishvili, was placed under investigation Friday on charges of plotting to overthrow the Georgian government. Now out of the country, he is unlikely to return soon.
One opposition leader, former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, said few Georgian businesses will be willing to fund the opposition and risk spoiling relations with the government.
The opposition factions have agreed to discontinue protests and focus on the campaign, but they will have a hard time finding a viable candidate.
Okruashvili, once regarded as a potential challenger, only turns 35 in November so is not eligible to run. He left the country last week under mysterious circumstances after first accusing Saakashvili of corruption and then retracting the allegations when put under arrest.
Tinatin Khidasheli, a respected lawyer, is a favorite of young voters. But her 35th birthday is not until June.
Another potential candidate hasn't lived in Georgia the required 15 years, and a fourth opposition leader has just been put on a wanted list on charges of plotting to overthrow the government.
Okruashvili said opposition parties would likely agree on a candidate in the next several days. But he said the early election day and the intimidation of potential candidates and their financial supporters all but ensure a victory for Saakashvili.
"There will not be a competitive environment and he will have a 100 percent chance to keep power," Okruashvili told AP Television News in Germany. ( NV )