Polls have opened across Georgia in a close parliamentary election seen as a test of stability in the ex-Soviet country.

Saturday's vote sees the ruling Georgian Dream party, led from behind the scenes by billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, grappling with the United National Movement (UNM), founded by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Tensions rose in the run-up to the vote after a car bombing that targeted an opposition deputy and a shooting incident at a political rally.

Georgia's Western allies will be watching closely to see if the country can cement gains after its first peaceful transfer of power at the ballot box four years ago.

Voting, which started at 04:00 GMT and ends at 16:00 GMT, will be monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

No clear winner?

The country's politics remain dominated by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili, even though neither holds an official position, and their parties are hoping to score landslide victories.

But opinion polls have the two neck-and-neck in the race to form the next government, leaving analysts warning that the country of 3.7 million could slip into political turmoil if there is no outright winner.

Georgians to vote in parliamentary elections

 

 

 

 

Four years after Ivanishvili's party ended nearly a decade of dominance by Saakashvili's UNM, an economic slowdown and constant political confrontations means that the approval ratings of both sides are quite low.

"As both the incumbents and the UNM are quite unpopular, the most likely outcome is that there will be no outright winner," AFP news agency quoted political analyst Gia Nodia as saying.

"Georgia will have to create a coalition government, but creating a genuine coalition may prove tough, as there are lots of hard feelings between parties."

Due to the country's complex election rules, the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.

The pre-election atmosphere in Georgia, a US ally, was already tense after an opposition deputy's car was blown up in Tbilisi, the capital, earlier this week. Givi Targamadze survived unscathed, 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 and former defence minister, in the town of Gori.

EU and NATO ties

Both the government and the main opposition would like to see Georgia join the European Union and NATO, but such a move would be strongly resisted by Russia.

While the two leading parties remain firmly committed to Georgia's pro-Western trajectory, for the first time in decades the vote may see one of several small pro-Russian parties make it to the parliament.

The ruling Georgian Dream party also favours stronger ties with Russia.

Originally a coalition of six parties, Georgian Dream was founded by billionaire Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. It came to power in 2012, ending the nine-year rule of Saakashvili's UNM.

It was the first peaceful transfer of power since the 1991 Soviet collapse and followed public protests over a scandal involving the mistreatment of prison inmates and accusations that Saakashvili was behaving in an authoritarian manner.

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

Saakashvili was forced out of the country after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for abuse of power and now works as a regional governor in Ukraine.

The ex-president has pledged to return after the elections but the authorities warn they will detain him if he steps foot in the country. He says the charges against him 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.

Source: News Agencies