Georgia given choice of facing East or West in crucial election

Today's vote pits President Saakashvili's party against pro-Russia billionaire

Tbilisi

Georgians head to the polls today in a hotly contested parliamentary election seen as a referendum on the nation's future: back the party of the one-time revolutionary hero, President Mikheil Saakashvili, or vote for his arch-enemy, one of the richest men in the world, who has promised democratic reform and better relations with Russia.

Mr Saakashvili is being challenged by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian oligarch who made his fortune in Russia and has united a motley collection of opposition parties in a coalition against the President. Mr Saakashvili has to step down next year, and with constitutional changes that will make the country a parliamentary republic about to take hold, today's vote will decide whether his United National Movement will form the new government. If Georgian Dream, Mr Ivanishvili's coalition, wins the majority of seats, he has vowed to become Prime Minister for a maximum of two years and implement a fairly vague programme of democratic reforms.

The campaign has been characterised by sharp accusations and hyperbole, with Mr Ivanishvili describing the President as a ruthless dictator cloaked in a thin façade of democratic rhetoric, while Mr Saakashvili has claimed his opponent is a Kremlin stooge looking to drag Georgia back to the 1990s, when it was riven with corruption and nepotism. With both sides declaring certain victory and presenting the consequences of defeat in apocalyptic terms, the aftermath of the vote could see prolonged arguments and demonstrations.

At his final campaign rally on Saturday afternoon, Mr Ivanishvili addressed a vast crowd in central Tbilisi and insisted that the "hours of the Saakashvili regime are numbered". He called the government "sadists" and said that "the people have shown they want to live in a democratic state".

Subverting the symbolism of the bloodless 2003 Rose Revolution when Mr Saakashvili unseated the previous President Eduard Shevardnadze, Mr Ivanishvili addressed the crowds from Freedom Square, as a victorious Mr Saakashvili had once done.

The opposition said over 600,000 people attended, making it the largest rally in the history of Georgia, while others put the number at closer to 100,000. Whatever the exact figure, it was an impressive turnout, with people thronging the square and stretching hundreds of metres down Rustaveli avenue, the city's main thoroughfare.

For his part, Mr Saakashvili told his last rally on Friday that the country faced a choice that would impact upon every family in the country. "Do we want to go forward or do we want to turn back?" he asked a crowd of flag-waving supporters at the city's Dinamo Stadium. "Do we want to be free of criminals, thieves, violence or are we ready to put chains on our hands?"

Polls have consistently shown Mr Saakashvili's party to have a strong lead, but Mr Ivanishvili has dismissed them as fixed, and his hand has been strengthened by the release a fortnight ago of videos showing prisoners being tortured and sexually abused in a Tbilisi prison, which Mr Ivanishvili says is proof that the government's democratic rhetoric is just a façade.

"We expect a victory," says Tina Khidasheli of the Republican Party, part of Mr Ivanishvili's coalition. "And not just any victory but a big one. Everything I am seeing from campaigning suggests that there is a lot of enthusiasm for us, and I think there is going to be a surprisingly high turnout."

Over 1,600 international monitors and 60,000 Georgians have registered as observers of the vote, and Mr Ivanishvili has promised to honour the results if international monitors describe them as free and fair.

But with a campaign that has declared right from the beginning that anything except a clear victory for his coalition will mean that the election has been stolen, there is a potential for major protests.

In nearly nine years in office, Mr Saakashvili has had notable success in combating everyday corruption and crime, and Tbilisi has become a safe, pleasant city. Recently, he opened a Palace of Justice – a contemporary glass building that is a one-stop shop where people can complete over 250 different legal and bureaucratic formalities.

"The idea of being able to do this stuff easily and without paying a bribe would have been unthinkable before," says Daniel Kunin, who was a key adviser to the Georgian President until 2010. "That for me is the real legacy of the Saakashvili era." But the Georgian President has also been accused of arbitrary decision-making, cracking down on free media, and is still criticised for his part in leading Georgia to war with Russia in 2008.

"Look at all these people! We've won already," said Zurab Katidze, 37, attending Mr Ivanishvili's rally on Saturday. "Saakashvili did some good things at the start but we're sick of him now. It's time for him to go."

Ms Khidasheli says that, in the event of a victory for Mr Saakashvili, she will be telling people to stay "within constitutional limits" but will nevertheless encourage them to protest. "People are not going to sit back and watch if their votes are falsified," she says. "We are going to fight until the end."

The Challenger: Bidzina Ivanishvili

Georgia's would-be saviour is no ordinary politician. Bidzina Ivanishvili is the richest man in Georgia, rising from an impoverished childhood in a small Georgian village to make billions in Moscow in the 1990s.

After moving back to Georgia a decade ago, Mr Ivanishvili built himself a contemporary chateau of glass on a hill overlooking Tbilisi and surrounded himself with exotic pets and expensive works of art. At his various residences around the country he keeps zebras, kangaroos and peacocks, while his art collection includes works by Picasso, Lucian Freud and Jeff Koons.

His journey to riches began when he was a PhD student in Moscow during perestroika, and he began to use his old Tbilisi connections to import computers into the Soviet capital and sell them on for a huge profit. He later set up a bank that became one of the biggest in Russia.

Meanwhile Mr Ivanishvili himself remained a mysterious and enigmatic figure. Until last year he lived as a recluse, never speaking to the media or appearing in public, and most Georgians had no idea what he looked like, knowing only that his charitable foundation doled out generous stipends to struggling artists and intellectuals in the capital, and that his money had paid for the construction of a number of churches and infrastructure projects in the country.

Last October he broke with his hermitic lifestyle and announced he was entering politics, disappointed with what he said was the increasing dictatorial bent of Mr Saakashvili's government. Helped on the campaign trail by his albino rapper son, he has spent the past months travelling through the towns and villages of Georgia drumming up support for his coalition.

Timeline: power plays

1991 – Georgia declares independence from the Soviet Union after a referendum. Former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia is elected president.

1992 – Mr Gamsakhurdia is deposed. Former Soviet minister of foreign affairs and pro-Kremlin Eduard Shevardnadze becomes head of state.

2003 – Mr Shevardnadze is toppled in a peaceful "Rose Revolution", paving the way for US-educated Mikheil Saakashvili to win a presidential election.

2008 – Conflict erupts with Russia after Georgia tries to retake separatist South Ossetia by force.

2011 – Georgian Dream opposition party launched by Moscow-friendly billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

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