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Georgians parliamentary election hit by irregularities
( 2003-11-03 10:32) (Agencies)

Amid confusion at polling stations and fears of unrest, Georgians voted in parliamentary elections Sunday that were seen as a test of strength for politicians seeking to succeed President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Some polling stations opened late and there were complaints that the names of some eligible voters were not on registration lists. The Central Elections Commission extended voting by an hour in Tbilisi and until midnight in the second-largest city, Kutaisi, to accommodate those voters affected by the delays.

The Interior Ministry dispatched forces to the city of Rustavi to prevent violence, but there were no reported incidents.

Official results were not expected until late Monday.

Fourteen parties and seven coalitions competed for legislative seats in the former Soviet republic of 4.4 million people, located on the oil-rich Caspian Sea and is one of the most Western-leaning of the former Soviet republics.

With no obvious successor to the president, Sunday's election is being watched closely as a prelude to the presidential race in 2005, when Shevardnadze, 75, steps down after serving the maximum two terms.

Shevardnadze has dominated Georgian politics for the last quarter-century, serving as the Soviet republic's Communist Party head beginning in 1972 and Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. He returned to Tbilisi in 1992 to head the newly independent nation.

During his presidency, Georgia has been troubled by corruption, infrastructure deterioration and the frequent kidnappings.

The current front-runner to succeed Shevardnadze is Nino Burdzhanadze, the speaker of parliament, who heads the United Democrats, which favors a close relationship with the United States, integration into Europe and a firm course toward joining NATO. Burdzhanadze has accused Moscow of actively supporting separatists in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region.

Another top contender for Shevardnadze's seat is Mikhail Saakashvili, head of the National Movement, who has campaigned against official corruption. The movement has strong anti-Moscow views.

Shevardnadze's biggest rival in the last two presidential elections, former Communist Party leader Dzhumber Patiashvili, heads the Unity bloc. The movement considers a close relationship with Russia the only way to preserve Georgia's territorial integrity.

The bloc most closely identified with Shevardnadze is For a New Georgia, headed by Vazha Lordkipadnidze, a former top state official and ambassador to Russia.

The election's early hours were marked by problems at polling stations that resulted in many opening late and at least one closing early. In Kutaisi, scores of polling stations were opened hours late for unexplained reasons.

In Tbilisi, voting at one polling station was annulled after about two hours because officials noted that the station had not posted a copy of its voter list, as required.

Posting the lists was among the requirements agreed to after U.S.President Bush sent former Secretary of State James Baker as a special envoy to discuss election preparations. The move underscored U.S. interest in Georgia.

Elections commission spokesman Ketevan Korinteli said there were many complaints of people not finding their names on voting lists.

An 84-year-old Tbilisi resident, Karen Shakhnazarov, complained that he and his wife waited more than an hour while name disputes were heard and then left without voting.

"We didn't have the strength to stand, you understand, and there weren't any chairs," he said.

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