(ADDS COMMENTS ORTHODOX CHURCH AND REPORTED KIDNAPPING AND KILLING)
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By BosNewsLife News Center
TBILISI/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Voting began Monday, October 1, in heavily Orthodox Georgia in parliamentary elections with the party of the pro-western President Mikhail Saakashvili facing a strong challenge following mounting criticism over his policies and a prison abuse scandal.
Amid the tensions, the leader of Georgia’s Orthodox Church warned that that the country’s elections and results must be above suspicion amid mounting local and international concerns about reports of intimidation of voters and a just revealed controversial kidnapping and killing.
Patriarch Ilia II, who has been neutral during the campaign, said in a statement that “These elections are very important, and we expect there will be no violations and the elections will not be falsified.” He said, “Those who the people want elected should be elected.”
His announcement came while an activist for the main opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili reported her 9-month-old niece was kidnapped and later found drowned in a region east of the capital Tbilisi. A Georgian Dream party spokesman said the baby’s aunt had been threatened by members of Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement.
The Georgian Interior Ministry said it would investigate but stressed it was unfortunate “that the Georgian Dream coalition has politicized this tragic event.”
It wasn’t the only potential scandal facing Saakashvili.
Monday’s ballot was held shortly after Georgians crowded the streets to express outrage over leaked videos showing prison guards beating and raping inmates. Though a minister responsible for prisons resigned, the revelations have hurt the campaign of Georgian President
Opinion polls showed the pro-Western president’s United National Movement party facing a strong challenge from the Georgian Dream coalition of Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia.
Ironically, the 56-year-old businessman-turned-politician also owns one of the television networks that aired the prison abuse.
The scandals came on top of public criticism about Saakashvili’s handling of poverty and an unemployment rate of over 16 percent.
President Saakashvili has defended his record saying he tackled “deep rooted corruption” and moved the country forward.
The ballot for 150 seats in parliament comes after Georgia changed the constitution to give the prime minister many of the powers now held by the president.
Parliament will name a new prime minister next year after Saakashvili’s second and last presidential term ends.
The West is closely monitoring the elections which are expected to impact Georgia’s relations with Russia.
Under Saakhashvili, Georgia fought, and lost, a brief war with Russia in 2008, after which Moscow recognized Georgian regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and increased its military presence there.
Some 51,000 international monitors and other officials are observing the ballot in the former Soviet nation.
(BosNewsLife’s NEWS WATCH is a regular look at key general news developments from especially but not limited to (former) Communist nations and other autocratic states impacting the Church and/or compassionate professionals).