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Georgia goes to the polls

Georgian citizens have voted in parliamentary elections which are being closely watched by Europe. Whether Georgia should prioritize relations with the West or Russia is a key election issue.

The Georgian Central Election Commission reported on Monday that by 15:00 p.m. local time (1200 GMT) 45 percent of listed voters already voted in the parliamentary elections. Polls closed a few hours later.

There is no minimum voter turnout requirement in Georgia for elections to be judged as valid.

The EU also said Monday that the outcome of the elections would determine the future direction of Georgia's relationship with Europe.

"We have made very clear that the expectations for these elections are extremely high," said Maja Kocijancic, a spokesperson for EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton. "They will determine the pace and the intensity of our relations with Georgia."

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili speaks at a campaign rally for his United National Movement in Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. Georgia holds tightly contested parliamentary elections on Oct. 1. (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

A recent torture scandal may affect the performance of President Mikhail Saakashvili's party

Kocijancic added that a team of international election observers were expected to publish a preliminary report on Tuesday, which will inform the EU's official response to the "quite crucial" poll.

Too difficult to call?

Analysts have struggled to predict a likely outcome for Monday's election in Georgia. An August poll by the US National Democratic Institute had recorded 37 percent support for the current president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement against 12 percent support for the opposition Georgian Dream, led by the 56-year-old billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili. Forty three 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.

Courting friends: the West or Russia?

The two main competing parties seem to offer Georgians two very different directions in terms of foreign policy. During his 10 years in power, Saakashvili has carved out a pro-Western course that seeks close ties with the US and EU and future membership in NATO.

But 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.

sej/ (dpa, IFAX, AFP, Reuters)