TBILISI Georgian leader Mikhail Saakashvili is likely to win this Saturday's snap presidential election but most analysts and polls say it is unclear if his victory will be decisive enough to avoid a second-round run-off.
Staunch U.S. ally Saakashvili called the snap election in November to repair his battered authority and democratic reputation and Western allies will be watching to ensure the vote is squeaky clean.
Saakashvili, who swept to power in a 2003 "Rose Revolution", dismayed his Western allies when he responded to massive opposition protests in November by sending in police with tear gas and closing down the biggest opposition television station.
He called the election months early as part of a package of concessions to ease the stand-off with the opposition, which accuses him of ruling in an autocratic style and failing to ease poverty and unemployment.
"Saakashvili has been ruling the country in an authoritarian way for four years putting his own ambitions and opinion higher than the rule of law," said David Usupashvili, leader of the opposition Republican party.
Georgia's opinion polls flip-flop over who is winning the election race and most analysts say the only certainty is that many Georgians will decide whom to vote for at the last moment.
"The presidential poll will be very unpredictable," said Ramaz Sakvarelidze, an analyst and a professor at Tbilisi State University.
A candidate needs to win over 50 percent of the vote to win outright in the first round. If there is no clear winner the top two candidates face each other in a run-off on January 19.
Georgia, an ex-Soviet state of 4.5 million people in the Caucasus mountains, has strategic importance. A BP-led consortium will soon be pumping 1 million barrels of oil a day through a pipeline across Georgia, bypassing Russia.
And Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, has been the focus of a geopolitical tug-of-war with Russia, which accuses the West of encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence.
The vote is unlikely to change Georgia's pro-Western policies or its tense relations with Russia. All leading candidates back Saakashvili's drive for membership of NATO and the European Union.
Saakashvili's main challengers are expected to be Levan Gachechiladze, a 43-year-old wine producer whose bid is backed by the opposition coalition, and Shalva Natelashvili, whose Labor party split from the coalition.
Multi-millionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, whose Imedi television station became the main mouthpiece for the opposition protests in November, is also contesting the election although his support is estimated at under 10 percent.
Opposition challengers say they will stage mass protests after January 5 if there is evidence of ballot fraud.
Their ability to mobilize large numbers of protesters is likely to depend on whether observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deem the vote was fair.
President George W. Bush has described Georgia as a "beacon of democracy" and liberal economic reforms have helped deliver gross domestic product growth of 9 to 12 percent in each of the past four years. Foreign investment has surged.
But many Georgians complain that while the West praises the reforms, they have been left behind: inflation eats into incomes, utility bills have risen and unemployment is high.
The opposition also says Saakashvili, a 40-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer with a Dutch wife, only pays lip service to democracy. They point to the arrest on corruption charges of one of his opponents, ex-defense minister Irakly Okruashvili, as evidence of his autocratic approach.
(Reporting and writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Caroline Drees)