Parliamentary polls in the Caucasus nation of Georgia have begun amid a bitter rivalry between two pro-Western parties led by two influential men, one of whom is an official of another country and the other not formally in politics.
Voting began on Saturday in razor-thin competition between the ruling Georgian Dream Party, led from behind the scenes by billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the United National Movement (UNM), founded by exiled ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is currently a citizen and formal official of Ukraine, AFP reported.
The development comes as Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has vowed to hold free and fair elections, which "will mark a truly important step to the future of democratic Georgia."
In a statement he further added, "I encourage voters to attend the elections and vote for the even better, European future of Georgia."
The intense campaigning leading up to the polls, however, has sparked fears of political instability in the former Soviet republic, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 and seeks membership in the US-led NATO and well as the European Union.
Tensions further intensified ahead of the vote following a car bombing and shooting incident at a political rally earlier in the week in what press reports described as attempted assassination of a UNM lawmaker whose car exploded in the capital Tbilisi on Wednesday, injuring four passers-by.
The bombing prompted UNM to accuse government officials of "creating a climate of hatred in which opposition politicians are being attacked."
The poisonous mood dominating the voting follows years of what the opposition views as political witch hunts and retribution against Saakashvili and his team.
Saakashvili, who rose to power in the course of the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003, was forced out of the country after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for abuse of power. He currently serves as a regional governor in pro-Western Ukraine.
The ex-president has vowed to return after the voting, though government authorities have warned that he will face arrest if he sets foot in the country.
The polls, which opened at 0800 GMT and ends at 1600 GMT, is reportedly being monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).