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About 3.5 million voters will elect Georgia's new president in early
About 3.5 million voters will elect Georgia's new president in early elections, which began on Saturday at 8.00 a.m. local time (4.00 a.m. GMT).

The country's former president Mikheil Saakashvili announced the elections in early November, amid mass protests in the capital Tbilisi.

Georgians will also vote on the country's accession to NATO and decide on whether the parliamentary elections should be held in the spring of 2008.

The country's interior minister, Shota Khizanishvili, said no incidents at the polling stations have been reported so far. However, heavy snowfalls have delayed the polls in mountainous villages, one station still closed.

Georgia's Association of Young Lawyers, which conducts independent monitoring of the polls, has reported several violations of the election law, including three cases when observers were prevented from entering stations.

The Civil Georgia magazine said that all the presidential candidates have already cast their ballots.

Shalva Natelashvili, the head of the country's Labor Party, who came to the polling station with his wife and daughter, said that the elections are the one of the country's most significant political events and called for higher turnout.

"We are choosing freedom and independence again," he said.

Saakashvili, who stepped down as president in November to launch his presidential campaign, will face six challengers - Levan Gachechiladze, a unity candidate of eight opposition parties; David Gamkrelidze, the New Right opposition party leader; Irina Sarishvili, of the Imedi political movement; Giorgy Maisashvili, the Party of the Future leader; Badri Patarkatsishvili, a foreign-based billionaire; and Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labor Party.


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