Georgia leader seen passing first post-war vote test
Tbilisi: Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is expected to pass his first electoral test since a 2008 war with Russia on Sunday, aided by a fragmented opposition that has struggled to capitalise on public anger over his rule.
The municipal vote, including the first election for mayor of the capital Tbilisi, is also being seen as an early test for potential successors to Saakashvili, who is due to step down in 2013 after a decade in power.
Relations with former Soviet master Russia remain fraught, with some opposition leaders calling for closer ties in the hope of ending a Russian embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water, and restoring direct flights between the countries.
But an opinion poll showed that jobs and poverty top the list of voter concerns. The Georgian economy contracted by 3.9 percent last year.
Three election blocs and 14 political parties were battling for the support of 3.5 million eligible voters for seats in 64 municipal councils, including one in the capital.
Western support for the 42-year-old Saakashvili has waned over his record on democracy and the war, when an assault by Georgia's US-trained military on the rebel region of South Ossetia triggered a crushing Russian counterstrike.
Saakashvili says he has created a model democracy in a region dominated by rigged polls and long-serving authoritarian leaders. Critics accuse him of monopolising power, marginalising the opposition and manipulating the media.