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By VOA News
05 January 2008

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili greets his supporters during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, 4 Jan. 2008
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili greets his supporters during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, 4 Jan. 2008

Voters in Georgia cast ballots Saturday to determine whether former President Mikhail Saakashvili will return to office.

Early exit polls show that Mr. Saakashvili is poised to win a narrow margin. He needs to get 50 percent plus one extra vote to avoid a second round.

Mr. Saakashvili faced six challengers in the polls, which took place under heavy snowfall across the small republic south of the Russian border.

His closest rival, Levan Gachechiladze, backed by a coalition of nine opposition parties, is challenging the validity of the vote.

Mr. Saakashvili called early presidential elections to restore peace following a series of massive anti-government protests in the capital, Tbilisi, in November.

Ahead of the election, the opposition accused Mr. Saakashvili of planning to rig the outcome and threatened to protest the results.

He vowed that the election would be democratic and transparent.

Hundreds of international observers are expected to play an important role in determining the legitimacy of today's vote.

Earlier Saturday, opposition leaders accused authorities of forcing citizens in some polling stations to vote for Mr. Saakashvili and other violations.

Another candidate is Georgian media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, who withdrew his candidacy last week, then reversed himself Thursday. He quit after several Georgian television stations aired a tape showing him offering $100 million to an Interior Ministry official, in exchange for a ministry pledge not to use police force against opposition protesters.

Mr. Patarkatsishvili was a driving force in last November's protests.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.

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