Georgian opposition splits on presidential candidate

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TBILISI, Nov 12 (Reuters) Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's prospects of beating off a challenge to his leadership rose today when the opposition splintered over its choice of candidate for a snap election A coalition of opposition parties which forced US-ally Saakashvili to call the presidential election after a series of protests in the capital picked 43-year-old wine producer Levan Gachechiladze as its candidate.

But the Labour party, a key member of the coalition until now, broke ranks and said it would be putting forward its leader to challenge Saakashvili, while media magnate Badri Patarkatsishvili has said he too would run.

''This is not good for the opposition,'' analyst Nana Sumbadze at the Institute for Policy Studies said of the split. ''It's definitely been a good day for Saakashvili.'' Saakashvili introduced a state of emergency -- which bans independent media and meetings -- after the street protests last week. He said Russia had been manipulating the opposition to try to stir unrest. Moscow denied any involvement.

The crackdown, which included police using teargas on protesters and raiding a television station, has severely dented the image Saakashvili has cultivated as a champion of democracy since a bloodless revolution in 2003 swept him to power.

The Labour Party's Executive Secretary told Reuters that party leader Shalva Natelashvili would be running against Saakashvili in the Jan 5 vote, putting him in competition with the other opposition challengers.

''The leaders of other opposition parties can see the ratings of Natelashvili for themselves and they will understand how popular our leader is,'' said Paata Jibladze.

Opinion polls give Labour about 10 percent support in Georgia, a country riven by civil war in the early 1990s, and it is one of the biggest opposition parties.

''SHAM'' The split increases the chances that multi-millionaire Patarkatsishvili will contest the election. He announced his candidacy on Saturday but said he may stand aside if the opposition united behind a single contender.

He is now in Israel and wanted for questioning by Georgia's prosecutors on suspicion of plotting a coup. He could not be reached for comment on the split in the opposition.

But Patarkatsishvili said in a statement sent to Reuters by email on Monday that he would return to Tbilisi no later than Nov 25 to register for the election after being given permission by the Georgian electoral commission to stand.

Saakashvili came to power in a the ''Rose Revolution,'' a wave of street protests against his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

He has said he wants to take his ex-Soviet state of about five million people into the European Union and NATO. US President George W Bush described Georgia under his rule as a ''beacon of democracy.'' Saakashvili's opponents said the crackdown on opposition protests showed that was a sham and they have also accused him of economic mismanagement.

The opposition coalition says if it wins the Jan 5 vote it will scrap the presidency and create a parliamentary system of government.

''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.'' REUTERS PJ RAI0020

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