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Georgians to vote for president

Georgians to vote for president

Georgians vote Saturday in a snap presidential poll that will see Mikheil Saakashvili, a key Western ally in the strategic Caucasus region, bidding to rescue his presidency after a violent crackdown on opposition protests.
Georgia, already under a Russian economic embargo, also risks angering Moscow with what analysts say will be a resounding "yes" in a referendum being held at the same time to decide whether the ex-Soviet republic and U.S. ally wants to join NATO.
Diplomats say the election is a chance for Georgia to recover some of its reputation as one of the most reformist and democratic countries in the former Soviet Union.
That image was badly tarnished in November when police fought running battles with thousands of anti-government protesters and Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency lasting nine days.
"These elections, the first competitive elections in recent Georgian history, are an important step in getting Georgia back on the democratic path and promoting Georgia's trans-Atlantic aspirations," a Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, told Agence France-Presse.
Saakashvili, who was elected with 96 percent support in 2004 after the peaceful, pro-Western Rose Revolution, is the clear frontrunner in a field of six.
But Saakashvili is nonetheless in the toughest political fight of his presidency and analysts say voters may punish him by denying him a majority win and forcing a run-off vote.
Hundreds of Western observers, meanwhile, will be watching to see if the vote is conducted fairly. Some have already raised concerns about an election campaign marked by allegations of state abuse and media bias.
Fears of unrest after the vote are also running high. Georgia could plunge into political turmoil if opposition leaders declare the vote a fraud and call for thousands of people to restart street protests.
Watching as his young daughter skated on an outdoor rink set up outside the Georgian parliament, Gia Logidze, 39, said he hoped the elections would proceed peacefully.
"Georgia has suffered enough in the last 15 years. What we need now is peace, stability and democracy," Logidze said, adding that while he didn't approve of police actions during the unrest, he would nonetheless vote for Saakashvili.
Saakashvili faces five opponents, with former wine entrepreneur Levan Gachechiladze the most serious contender. Gachechiladze, a former close ally of Saakashvili, was chosen by nine of the 10 opposition parties that organized November's protests as their joint candidate.