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Georgia goes to polls in vital test

Voters in Georgia are choosing a new parliament in a heated election that will decide the future of president Mikhail Saakashvili's government.

Emotions are running high in an election that is competitive not only for Georgia but for much of the former Soviet Union. If Mr Saakashvili's party loses, it would be the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history that a government has been changed not through revolution but at the ballot box.

The governing party, which has dominated parliament, is up against a diverse opposition coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has posed the most serious challenge to Mr Saakashvili since he came to power almost nine years ago.

With the opposition accusing the government of violations aimed at manipulating the vote, Mr Saakashvili is under pressure to prove his commitment to democracy by holding a free and fair election. Both sides have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.

About a million of Georgia's 3.6 million eligible voters live in Tbilisi, the capital, where opposition support is strongest. Queues formed outside some polling stations in the morning, and the Central Election Commission said turnout in the first four hours of voting had surpassed 25%.

Mr Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, has said he would pursue these strategic goals while also seeking to restore the ties with Moscow that were severed when the two neighbouring countries fought a brief war in 2008.

Mr Saakashvili has accused his rival of serving Kremlin interests and intending to put Georgia back under Russian domination, which the opposition leader has denied.

After casting his vote, Mr Saakashvili said the election was important not only for Georgia.

"A lot of things are being decided right now in our country, for the region, for the development, for the future not only of this nation, but for what happens to the European dream in this part of the world. What happens to the idea of democracy in this part of the world, what happens to the idea of reforms in this part of the world," he said, his Dutch wife and their younger son standing behind him.

The opposition has accused Mr Saakashvili of authoritarian rule. "Without a doubt, Mr Saakashvili and all of his people should leave," said Mamuka Gigienishvili, a 55-year-old physicist who voted in Tbilisi. "We have had enough of him acting like a czar."

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