Splits in Georgian opposition over vote runners

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TBILISI, Nov 12 (Reuters) Georgia's opposition coalition today named a businessman to challenge President Mikhail Saakashvili in a snap election on Jan 5, but splits in the opposition camp weakened its chances of victory.

The coalition, which forced Saakashvili to call the election after a series of protests in the capital, said it would put forward 43-year-old wine producer Levan Gachechiladze as its candidate.

But a senior figure in the coalition said the Labour Party, one of Georgia's biggest opposition groups, was no longer in the coalition. It might field its own candidate.

''It won't be an ordinary election,'' Gachechiladze told a news briefing after being named the coalition candidate. ''It will be against violence, it will be against injustice and it will be against the institution of the presidency.'' One of the opposition's main policies is to scrap the post of president and the coalition named French-born Salome Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister, as their candidate for prime minister.

Gachechiladze has every chance of beating Saakashvili, she said at the same news briefing. ''He is a very serious challenger to Saakashvili and we are going to win,'' she said.

ROSE REVOLUTION Earlier today, members of the Labour party read a statement on television saying they were considering putting forward a candidate of their own.

''Today's statement from the Labour party means it has split from the coalition,'' Koba Davitashvili, one of the coalition leaders, told Reuters.

The opposition staged a series of protests in the capital this month against Saakashvili, which ended with police using tear gas on protesters and the Georgian leader declaring a state of emergency.

Saakashvili came to power in a 2003 ''Rose Revolution'' and US President George W Bush described Georgia under his rule as a ''beacon of democracy.'' Saakashvili's opponents said the crackdown showed that was a sham.

He called the snap election as a concession to the opposition.

Analysts have said though the opposition's biggest problem would be to unite around a single candidate.

Badri Patarkatsishvili, a media magnate and Georgia's richest man, has already said he is running. It was not immediately clear if his bid would stand or if he would pull out in favour of Gachechiladzde.

With the Labour party leaving the opposition coalition the number of parties in the group drops to nine. At previous elections, the party has pulled in about 10 percent of the vote.

Gachechiladze, who is not affiliated to a party, has been at the forefront of protests against Saakashvili and had been one of dozens of people who started a hunger strike on the steps of parliament.

Reuters YA DB2241

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