Saakashvili Leaves Post Ahead of Georgian Presidential Vote

TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stepped down Sunday to be registered as a candidate in the Jan. 5 presidential election, his chief spokesman said.

"I am informing you that the Georgian president stepped down on Nov. 25, 2007," the president's chief spokesman, Vano Noniashvili, told a news conference. "I remind you that stepping down before the end of the term is a formality and a necessity because of early presidential elections in Georgia, and Mikheil Saakashvili is due to run in the election as a candidate."

After his government cracked down harshly on anti-government protesters earlier this month, Saakashvili called a presidential vote for Jan. 5 to defuse the strongest challenge to his tenure since his landslide in early 2004. His term had not been slated to end until early 2009.

Under the constitution, his powers now pass to Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, one of his allies.

Hundreds of people were injured in the crackdown, and the violence prompted international criticism and deepened disappointment among many Georgians.

But the poll date leaves the opposition scant time to capitalize.

In a campaign-style speech to more than 10,000 supporters in a sports arena Friday, Saakashvili urged voters to keep him in power, saying Georgia was facing "a moment of truth -- a crucial moment for every one of us."

"On Jan. 5 we will have to answer the question: Do we want the unification of our country, do we want to go forward in the future?" Saakashvili told a congress of his ruling United National Movement party coinciding with celebrations of the 2003 Rose Revolution, which ushered him to power.

The opposition had called for a rally Sunday to protest against a ban on Georgia's largest opposition television station, Imedi, which was stormed by special forces earlier this month.

Reuters, AP