Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is expected to pass his first electoral test since a 2008 war with Russia on Sunday, aided by a fragmented opposition that has struggled to capitalise on public anger over his rule.
The municipal vote, which will include the first ever election for mayor of the capital Tbilisi, is also being seen as an early test for potential successors to Saakashvili, who is due to step down in 2013 after a decade in power.
Relations with former Soviet master Russia remain fraught, with some opposition leaders calling for closer ties in the hope of ending a Russian embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water, and restoring direct flights between the countries.
But an opinion poll showed that jobs and poverty top the list of voter concerns. The Georgian economy contracted by 3.9 percent last year.
"I'll vote for a candidate who offers a better economic and social programme because unemployment, low salaries and pensions, as well as medical insurance, are the main concern for ordinary people," said 68-year old pensioner Khatuna Mumladze.
Three election blocs and 14 political parties will battle for the support of 3.5 million eligible voters for seats in 64 municipal councils, including one in the capital. Voting will begin at 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) and polls are due to close at 8 p.m.
Western support for the 42-year-old Saakashvili has waned over his record on democracy and the war, when an assault by Georgia's U.S.-trained military on the rebel region of South Ossetia triggered a crushing Russian counterstrike.
Saakashvili says he has created a model democracy in a region dominated by rigged polls and long-serving authoritarian leaders. Critics accuse him of monopolising power, marginalising the opposition and manipulating the media.
Ruling party in pole position
Saakashvili faced down months of protests last year but his United National Movement still enjoys solid support. Opponents are threatening to take to the streets again if they deem the vote unfair, but serious disturbances are not expected.
"This is the first chance we've had to gauge the level of support that the government has after the 2008 war," said Lawrence Sheets of the International Crisis Group think-tank.
Because the opposition is dogged by differences and does not have a coherent platform, however, it has struggled to present voters with an attractive alternative to Saakashvili's rule.
Opinion polls by the respected U.S. National Democratic Institute and other Western organisations suggest the ruling party will win most of Sunday's polls comfortably.
Gigi Ugulava, a member of the ruling party, looks likely to retain his post as mayor of Tbilisi -- seen as a potential springboard to the presidency. His closest challenger appears to be Irakly Alasania, a mild-mannered former U.N. envoy.
Western monitors found serious shortcomings in the 2008 presidential vote and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe is sending more than 300 observers for Sunday's poll.
The West is keen to stabilise the volatile South Caucasus, a transit route for oil and gas to Europe.
ReutersLast Mod: 30 Mayıs 2010, 17:37