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Georgia elects new parliament amid prison torture scandal

Georgians are electing a new parliament. Monday's poll follows a jail torture scandal that could undermine pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili's grip on power. His main challenger is the tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.

The polls are expected to usher in a new political era for the mountainous Caucasus nation of 4.5 million people, with constitutional changes set to strengthen the power of the parliament and prime minister while reducing those of the president by 2013.

An August poll by the US National Democratic Institute had recorded 37 percent support for Saakashvili's United National Movement against 12 percent support for the opposition Georgian Dream, led by the 56-year-old billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili. But 43 percent of the respondents said they could vote either way.

That poll, however, was taken before a prison torture scandal sparked a political uproar in Georgia. Videos were broadcast on two television channels, one of them owned by Ivanishvili, showing the torture and rape of male prisoners. Protesters took to the streets, forcing the interior minister and minister for corrections and legal assistance to resign.

The scandal has threatened to damage Saakashvili's projected image as a democratic reformer. Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003-04, unseating former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

During his 10 years in power, the incumbent president has staked out a pro-Western course that seeks close ties with the US and EU and future membership in NATO.

Courting Russia

But Ivanishvili has accused the 44-year-old Saakashvili of having established an authoritarian regime during his two-term tenure in power.

"Saakashvili's system must be destroyed," the billionaire said. "The fate of the country is being decided at these elections."

Ivanishvili, who made much of his money in Russia, wants to mend ties with Moscow - Georgia's former Soviet ruler. In 2008, Tbilisi fought a brief war with Russia, in which Georgia lost one fifth of its territory after South Ossetia and Abkhazia seceded from the Caucasus nation with the help of Moscow.

'Forward or back?'

But Saakashvili has said that Ivanishvili would bring back the corrupt practices of the past. Saakashvili's supporters have accused the billionaire of maintaining too close ties to the Kremlin.

"On October 1, we should answer a simple question: do we want to go forward or do we want to turn back?" Saakashvili told a mass rally on Friday.

Some 14 parties and two blocs are competing for seats in the 150-member parliament, which is elected for a four-year term. The presidential election will be held in 2013.

slk/ch (AFP, Reuters)