Georgia opposition unites to oust billionaire's party in poll

Tbilisi (AFP) –

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Georgia went to the polls Saturday in tightly contested parliamentary elections pitting an unlikely union of opposition forces against the increasingly unpopular ruling party led by the country's richest man.

Nestled between the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, Georgia is seen as a rare example of a democracy among ex-Soviet countries.

But elections in the country of nearly four million people regularly spark mass protests, with only one orderly transition of power, after a parliamentary vote in 2012.

Two colourful personalities dominate politics in the tiny Caucasus country -- the flamboyant former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who lives in exile in Ukraine, and billionaire ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In an unprecedented show of unity, Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) and smaller opposition groups have joined forces to challenge the ruling Georgian Dream party chaired by Ivanishvili.

- 'Georgia has awakened' -

On Thursday, tens of thousands of Saakashvili supporters staged a rally in Tbilisi's central square dominated by a giant statue of Saint George, the country's patron saint.

"Our victory is approaching. Georgia has awakened and is ready to choose freedom over oppression, prosperity over poverty, progress over backwardness," Saakashvili told the cheering crowd by video link.

The charismatic reformer was forced to flee Georgia at the end of his second term in 2013, fearing arrest after prosecutors accused him of abusing power -- charges he has denied and said were politically motivated.

"Ivanishvili is destroying Georgian democracy," 59-year-old schoolteacher Natela Okropiridze said at the rally. "On Saturday we will get rid of him."

In power since 2012, Georgian Dream has seen its popularity plummet due to discontent over its failure to address economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

Critics accuse Ivanishvili -- who is widely seen to be calling the shots in Georgia -- of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system where private interests permeate politics.

- 'Rules Georgia as fiefdom' -

"An oligarch who owns some 40 percent of Georgia's national wealth has appropriated the country and is ruling it as his fiefdom," Saakashvili told AFP in an interview.

Western capitals have accused the Georgian Dream-led government of mounting a political witch-hunt.

Nearly all of Georgia's opposition parties, including Saakashvili's UNM, held talks on forming a coalition government if they are elected.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have said they are sure to win, but analysts believe the outcome is uncertain, with the opposition enjoying only a narrow lead.

Due to Georgia's complex election rules the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.

Despite the dominance of Georgian Dream and the UNM, legislation introduced this year means smaller groups have a better chance of securing seats, with the threshold for representation at just one percent of the vote.

Voting opened at 0400 GMT and ends 12 hours later. The elections will be monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).