World Bulletin / News Desk
Georgians queued to vote for a new parliament on Monday in an election that marks the biggest test of President Mikheil Saakashvili's grip on the Caucasus Mountain nation after nearly a decade in power.
Saakashvili, a pro-Western leader who swept to the presidency after the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 and fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008, hopes to head off a challenge led by Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A once-reclusive tycoon with a fortune nearly half the size of the former Soviet republic's economy, 56-year-old Ivanishvili and his six-party Georgian Dream movement face an uphill battle.
But video footage showing the abuse and rape of inmates at a Tbilisi prison has increased their chances.
Voting in the election, which got under way at 0400 GMT, was brisk, with lines forming outside several polling stations in the capital Tbilisi, a Reuters correspondent observed.
Saakashvili, 44, must step down after a presidential vote next year, when constitutional changes will weaken the role of head of state giving more power to parliament and the prime minister.
The prison abuse video, aired on two channels opposed to Saakashvili including one owned by Ivanishvili, has undermined the president's image as a reformer who imposed the rule of law and rooted out post-Soviet corruption.
"I'm voting against violence and abuse - how can I do otherwise after what we have all seen on TV?" Natela Zhorzholia, 68, said outside a polling station at a school in the capital, Tbilisi. She said she would vote for Georgian Dream.
Ivanishvili hopes the scandal will convince voters who had been undecided who to back in the election that Saakashvili has become an undemocratic leader who tramples on rights and freedoms.
Saakashvili highlighted the importance of the vote after casting his ballot with his Dutch wife and their young son, and said: "The fate of our country's statehood is being decided today".
The vote would affect "not only this nation but what happens to the European dream ...what happens to the idea of democracy ... what happens to the idea of reforms in this part of the world," he said.
Many Georgians just want political and economic stability. The economy, hit by the 2008 war and the global financial crisis, has been growing again since 2010 but inflation is likely to hit 6-7 percent this year.
"I voted for peace and stability," Georgy Ugrekhelidze, 76. "I want this government to carry out what it has started."
The prison scandal led to street protests and heated rhetoric which included Saakashvili trading barbs with Georgia's powerful neighbour Russia, which during the war strengthened its control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which make up about one-fifth of the Caucasus nation's territory.
Saakashvili's supporters say the election could determine whether Georgia moves closer to Russia or remains a staunch U.S. ally. They accuse Ivanishvili, who made much of his money in Russia, of being a Kremlin stooge, a charge he denies.
THE BALLOT BOX OR THE STREETS
Concerns about how the aftermath of the election might play out have triggered calls for restraint from abroad.
The West wants a stable Georgia because of its role as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and its pivotal location between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.
"Political leaders should be chosen through the ballot box and not on the streets," parliamentary delegation heads from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, NATO and the European Parliament said on Saturday.
"The most important thing is that those who are dissatisfied should not create disorder," said voter Yelena Kvlividze, 45.
Ivanishvili told a rally on Saturday "this regime's hours are numbered", but has also said Georgian Dream would accept any outcome deemed legitimate by international observers.
A poll by the U.S. National Democratic Institute in August gave UNM 37 percent support against 12 percent for Georgian Dream but showed 43 percent of respondents could vote either way. There have been no major polls since the abuse scandal.
Elected in 2004 after the Rose Revolution protests toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, Saakashvili cultivated close ties with Europe and the United States and sought to bring Georgia into NATO.
He curbed police bribe-taking, made frequent power outages a thing of the past and presided over an economic resurgence.
But opponents say he has curtailed democracy, persecuting opponents, pressuring courts and controlling the media, and he faces criticism for leading Georgia into the 2008 war with Moscow in which Russian forces routed his army.