Authorities have insisted that the election on Saturday will be conducted fairly and have called on the opposition to recognise the results.

Snap election

The snap election, which was called after violent unrest in November, is seen as a crucial test of democracy for the Black Sea country, amid allegations of coup plots and meddling by former ruler Russia.

Gachechiladze said Saakashvili was planning to use "non-legal and bad exit polls" to claim victory and promised to "continue protests and everything under the constitution" to oppose him.

However, David Bakradze, Saakashvili's campaign manager, said that the government's unprecedented co-operation with international observers guaranteed thatthe election would be free and fair. 

"These are the first elections [in Georgia] conducted in a real competitive situation," he said.

Two other opposition candidates have also threatened not to recognise the vote.

Objective result

David Gamkrelidze, of the conservative New Rights party, said that Saakashvili did not have enough support to overcome the 50 per cent threshold required to avoid a run-off vote in two weeks' time.

"If he decided to manipulate the results and win in the first round, I think it will be quite difficult to accept and recognise the results, he said.

Saakashvili became president after the
so-called Rose Revolution in 2003 [AFP]
"We think the only objective result will be a second round."

Gamkrelidze said he would support "all peaceful methods" to protest against the result.

Giorgi Maisashvili, another opposition candidate, said: "It was not a just election so we won't recognise the results. He won't have any legitimacy from us." 

Saakashvili's campaign manager said the opposition was mounting "a campaign to discredit the election and to create the perception" that it was unfair.

"If Saakashvili wins, they'll say it was not free and fair, it was rigged and that's why we lost," he said.

Bakradze said the opposition would have no choice but to accept the vote if foreign observers said it met international standards, adding that he doubted that many people would then take part in demonstrations.

"I don't think there will be a lot of people," he said.

"There will be their activists, but then it will be seen by most of the population as something very irresponsible by the opposition. In that case, we don't expect any complications."

State of emergency

Saakashvili called the snap poll after police clashed with anti-government protesters on November 7, leading to the imposition of a state of emergency that lasted for nine days.

The crackdown shocked many ordinary Georgians, who had backed Saakashvili's 2003 pro-democracy Rose Revolution, as well as alarming his allies in Europe and the United States.

Hundreds of international observers have arrived in Georgia for the election and diplomats have warned that Georgian efforts at further integration with the West could be derailed if the vote is not conducted fairly.

Polls commissioned by the seven candidates in Saturday's contest offer conflicting data.

However, most analysts believe Saakashvili, a multilingual, US-trained lawyer, is well ahead of his nearest rival, Gachechiladze, a wine entrepreneur and politician.