Georgians voted on Saturday in a presidential election expected to hand the former Soviet state's leader a narrow win, but opponents accused him of rigging the poll and threatened street protests.
The election is the first big test of voters' faith in the Rose Revolution of 2003 that swept Mikhail Saakashvili to power on a tide of euphoria, but which many people complain has failed to deliver the improvements they hoped for.
U.S.-educated Saakashvili shocked his Western allies in November by crushing anti-government protests and they now want Georgia to prove its commitment to democracy.
This election is a watershed election that will make a determination as to their commitment, said U.S. Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, head of the main Western observation mission.
Across Georgia -- about the size of Ireland with around 4.5 million people -- voters braved heavy snow to reach polling stations, and the electoral commission said turnout was high.
Georgia, birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, lies at the heart of the South Caucasus -- a strategic transit route where a major pipeline pumps oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe, and Russia and the United States are battling for influence.
All previous elections since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union have been heavily one-sided or called fraudulent and Saturday's poll is seen as the first genuinely competitive vote.
Polls indicate Saakashvili, 40, is likely to win the seven-candidate race but it is unclear if he will gain the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round run-off.
Flanked by his Dutch wife and two young sons, a beaming Saakashvili voted mid-morning in central Tbilisi.
Georgia is a great success story for this region, he said afterwards. Now it's up to the people of Georgia to decide whether this success will continue as it was going.
About an hour later his main rival Levan Gachechiladze, a 43-year-old wine producer, voted. He heads a nine-party opposition coalition which accuses Saakashvili of economic mismanagement, corruption and autocratic rule.
Georgia is a fearless and proud country, he said. It's very important people express their will today.
PROTESTS WERE CRUSHED
It's excellent we have real competition, said Rusudan Tsutsnashvili, a 54-year-old English language teacher, as she queued in Tbilisi to vote. Inside officials dabbed indelible ink on voters' thumbs and monitors took notes.
Saakashvili ordered the snap election in November after telling police to fire teargas and rubber bullets at anti-government protesters, closing the main opposition broadcaster and imposing a state of emergency.
The early election was designed to repair his democratic image but opponents accuse him of rigging the vote by stuffing ballots and intimidation and said they may organize protests.
A lot of bad things are happening at polling stations, said Tina Khidasheli, a leader in the opposition coalition. Saakashvili's supporters dismiss the vote-rigging accusations as lies by an opposition which knows it cannot win.
In the last few years Saakashvili has pushed through liberal economic reforms and steered Georgia toward NATO membership, policies with which his opponents broadly agree.
His reforms have attracted foreign investment, generated economic growth of 9 to 12 percent a year, and led to U.S. President George W. Bush hailing Georgia as a beacon of democracy.
But inflation has eaten into incomes, utility bills have soared and unemployment is high.