Georgia election a test of democracy

( AP ) - Electricity shortages regularly threw Georgia into darkness before Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president four years ago and set out to transform the bankrupt former Soviet republic into a modern European state.

Saakashvili, his image now tarnished, wants his countrymen to remember those dark days when they vote Saturday in a presidential election that is looking too close to call.

As if to underline the changes since he took office, the center of the Georgian capital glitters from a multitude of lights strung around buildings, monuments and trees in celebration of New Year's Day and Orthodox Christmas.

The 40-year-old, U.S.-educated incumbent is fighting not only to remain in office but to prove to his critics that he is still the democratic leader once so beloved in his homeland and admired in the West.

Opponents accuse him of ignoring the poor and showing a tendency toward authoritarianism.

They took their accusations to the streets in November, holding peaceful demonstrations for five days before police violently dispersed them and Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency that included banning independent TV news broadcasts.

The crackdown angered many Georgians and called into question Saakashvili's commitment to democracy.

Saakashvili defused the crisis by calling an early election, cutting short his five-year term.

His challenge is to win an outright majority Saturday and avoid a runoff two weeks later that would allow the opposition, now split among six challengers, to unite behind one candidate.

A survey released Thursday by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a U.S. polling firm hired by Saakashvili's campaign, forecasts that the president will get 52 percent of the vote. But with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points, the poll is inconclusive on his chances of winning in the first round.

His toughest competition is Levan Gachechiladze, a member of parliament who built a business producing wine.

Gachechiladze represents an opposition coalition that wants to do away with the presidency. If a parliamentary system is established, as the coalition wants, he would step down.

"I am 43 years old and I never lie," he told supporters Thursday. "I will be gone. It's not a fight for me, for my presidency. It's a fight for democracy."

He is running in tandem with Salome Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat who once served as Saakashvili's foreign minister. She would become his prime minister and then leader of the country if the presidency were abolished.

She said nine opposition parties united behind Gachechiladze because he is the least political candidate in the sense that he does not belong to any party.

"I am a more political figure," Zurabishvili said in an interview in the elegant lobby of a Tbilisi hotel. "I am the leader of a political party and I also have experience with international diplomacy."

She and other opposition leaders say Saakashvili's team is planning to rig the election, and they say their supporters are ready to return to the streets Sunday if the vote is not free and fair. However, the Tbilisi mayor's office refused to grant permission for protests on the city's main avenue, a move that could raise new anger among those who believe authorities are suppressing the opposition.

The opposition's protest plans also have been undermined by a scandal that has discredited one of the leading candidates, billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili. He has admitted offering large sums of money to police if they side with protesters. Georgian authorities say he offered $100 million.

While Saakashvili has focused his campaign on increasing social welfare support, the opposition has dwelled on proposals to overhaul the political system.

Saakashvili's backers have been accused of improper use of government funds and voter intimidation by Transparency International. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election observer mission said it has received apparently credible reports of abuses.

Ana Jelenkovic, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said the government was unlikely to engage in overt fraud that could lead to a negative report from the international observers.

Saakashvili's campaign chief, David Bakradze, acknowledged there may have been some violations, which he said should not be surprising given Georgia's lack of experience with competitive elections. He told journalists he was certain the observers would find the "overall climate was free and fair."

Saakashvili says the election has put at stake the continuation of his plan to transform Georgia into a country worthy of membership in NATO and the European Union.

During his tenure, he has cracked down on organized crime and corruption, modernized the police force and the army, restored steady supplies of electricity and gas, and improved roads. The result has been economic growth of about 10 percent per year and a rise in foreign investment.

The economic success has not yet benefited much of the population, but after the November protests, Saakashvili has made social welfare his priority.

At his last campaign rally on Friday, Saakashvili spoke to thousands of supporters about his plans to end poverty.

"I want every grandpa to be able to take his grandson for a walk and have the money to buy him ice cream," he said.

In the village of Saguramo, where Gachechiladze spoke, farmer Tzhemal Makharashvili said he will vote for Saakashvili.

"I trust him, I believe in him," said Makharashvili, 63. "The city of Tbilisi used to be dirty and now it's nice and clean."

His wife, Tamara, has seen her monthly salary at the village library double to $60. Their son, a police officer, now gets $400, more than three times his previous salary.

Although the couple's one-story house is unheated, they say their lives have improved under Saakashvili.

"Now we have gas and electricity, while before we sat in the dark," Makharashvili said.

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