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Georgia faces decisive vote

The government and opposition in Georgia are fighting for voters in what has become a dirty election campaign. Monday's vote will decide on a parliament that is to gain more influence at the cost of the presidency.

Just a few days before the election, Georgia's opposition complained that it is increasingly under pressure from the government. The opposition claims that around 20 activists were arrested for fabricated accusations of defamation of a civil servant.

Opposition party Georgia's Dream says that supporters of President Mikheil Saakashvili have targeted individual members. The party, which was founded earlier this year by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, accuses Saakashvili of authoritarian rule.

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili (picture: REUTERS)

Saakashvili claims his opponent is following orders from the Kremlin

The president rejects all accusations, claiming that Georgia's Dream is in reality a "Russian project," and that the opposition wants to throw the country back under a Soviet-style dictatorship.

Ivanshvili, who made his money in Russia from metal and real estate, stresses that he wants to stick to Georgia's pro-Western course. He accuses Saakashvili of having led Georgia into a hopeless war with Russia in 2008. The aggressive policy lead to Tbilisi losing control of the rebel provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he argues.

Saakashvili under pressure

The entire election campaign is marked by such accusations and counter-accusations. At the end of August, Ivanishvili accused the government of trying to confiscate his new party's funds in order to make fair elections impossible. But the authorities said the money was to cover a 1.2 million euro ($1.5 million) fine for illegal party funding.

And yet the demonstrations have put more pressure on Saakashvili. The protests where triggered by a TV station largely owned by Ivanishvili's wife. TV-9 broadcast a video in September showing how prison inmates were being abused by guards and raped with batons and broomsticks. The Interior Ministry claims that supporters of Ivanishvili staged the video, but the scandal could still cost Saakashvili's party United National Movement many votes.

More powers to the prime minister

Georgian tycoon and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili (REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze)

Ivanishvili says the president led Georgia into a hopeless war

The vote is of special significance as the new parliament is to get more powers than in previous terms. The changes will come into force after the next presidential election in October 2013. From then on, the prime minister will no longer be chosen by the president but by the party with the parliamentary majority. The president will also lose some of his decision-making powers to influence both domestic and foreign policy.

Observers believe that Saakashvili has agreed to the constitutional changes because he aims to become prime minister in 2013. After two terms in office he won't be allowed to run for the presidency any more. But Ivanishvili is also eyeing the powerful new prime minister's position.

Aside from Saakashvili's governing party and Ivanishvili's opposition Georgia's Dream, there are also the Christian Democrats, headed by former journalist Giorgi Targamadze, who have a chance of making it back into parliament. Other opposition activists accuse the Christian Democrats of being merely a puppet party, frequently voting with the current government.

The five percent required to make it into parliament might also be cracked by the populist Workers Party of lawyer Shalva Natelashvili. In total there are 14 parties and two coalitions on the ballot.

Observers and journalists concerned

Georgian demonstrators (picture:Sergej Guscha)

Georgian journalists protest for more election coverage rights

Since August, Georgian NGOs monitoring the election campaigns have observed hundreds of violations of the regulations. Among other things, they have noted that government resources are being used for the incumbent party's campaign. Opposition supporters are allegedly put under pressure and journalists are prevented from doing their job.

Georgian journalists and NGOs also criticize the fact that only very limited photography and filming will be allowed at the polling stations on election day. According to the central election commission, journalists are only allowed to take pictures or film in the first ten minutes after polling stations open. In order to not disturb citizens voting, journalists have to stay at least three meters away from the ballot boxes.

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