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Georgians vote in snap election

  • Story Highlights
  • Georgians began voting Saturday in early elections
  • President Mikhail Saakashvili hopes to prove his democratic credentials
  • His challenge is to win an outright majority and avoid a runoff
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TBILISI, Georgia (CNN) -- Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili vowed that Saturday's snap election to decide the fate of his government would be a free and fair vote, and so far opponents have offered no evidence of widespread fraud as citizens go to the polls in this former Soviet republic.


Saakashvili's crackdown on opponents has raised doubts about his democratic credentials.

The pro-western Saakashvili, the hero of Georgia's "Rose Revolution" who was elected in a landslide four years ago, called the election after he was criticized for a crackdown against violent anti-government protests in November.

"We are committed to having free and fair elections," Saakashvili told reporters after he cast his own ballot Saturday. "We are committed to having Georgia as a beacon of democracy in our part of the world."

Saakashvili appeared confident Saturday, perhaps encouraged by polling released by his campaign that showed him with 52 percent support against six opponents. He must get 50 pecent plus one vote to avoid a runoff in two weeks against the second highest vote-getter.

Just four years ago, Saakashvili won with 96 percent of the vote -- an election that came just two months after he led his own anti-government protest that came to be known as the "Rose Revolution."

That dramatic event saw Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, on live television, flee out the back door of parliament as demonstrators rushed in the front.

When Saakashvili was faced with his own protests accusing him of corruption last November, he declared a nationwide state of emergency and sent security forces, using water cannons and tear gas, against the crowds. Hundreds of people were injured in scuffles with police.

He answered charges that he had become anti-democratic by calling for a new presidential election which he hoped would show he is not trying to become an authoritarian leader.

"We are a democracy in a region where democracy is not meant to be," he said Saturday.

He is hoping voters will credit him for the reversal of his republic's economy -- which included 10 percent growth last year.

"We took a country that was nowhere, a failed state with basically a zero reputation, and with a very, very negative reputation, and now look at where Georgia is," he said.

"We are going to stick to the course of the reforms," he said. "The radical reforms we instituted improved the lives of our people and made Georgia a real success story."

More than 2,000 election observers and 160 media organizations from around the world converged on Georgia to watch Saturday's election.

The continuation for Saakashvili's government is important for the United States. Georgia is the third largest contributor of troops to the coalition in Iraq -- behind the United States and Britain.

The first exit poll results are expected about an hour after the polls close at 8 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET) Saturday. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Journalist Elene Gotsadze in Tbilisi contributed to this report.

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