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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Georgian Opposition Picks Candidate

ReutersPrime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, left, meeting with Bryza on Monday in Tbilisi.
TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgia's opposition coalition on Monday named a businessman to challenge President Mikheil 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 wine producer Levan Gachechiladzde, 43, as its candidate.

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

"It won't be an ordinary election," Gachechiladzde 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.

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

Earlier on Monday, members of the Labor Party read a statement on television saying they were considering putting forward a candidate of their own.

"Today's statement from the Labor Party means it has split from the coalition," said Koba Davitashvili, one of the coalition leaders.

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

U.S. President George W. Bush has described Georgia under Saakashvili's rule as a "beacon of democracy." Saakashvili's opponents said the crackdown showed that was a sham.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew J. Bryza urged the Georgian government Monday to lift the state of emergency immediately in order to "restore the momentum of democratic reform" in the former Soviet republic.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, Bryza said he had been given the impression that the Georgian government was moving toward lifting the state of emergency "quite quickly."

Bryza, who also has met with opposition leaders, planned to meet with Saakashvili before leaving Tuesday. A time and place has not been announced.

Saakashvili called the snap election as a concession to the opposition. Analysts have said, however, that the opposition's biggest problem would be uniting around a single candidate.

Badri Patarkatsishvili, Georgia's richest man, has already said he is running. It was not immediately clear whether his bid would stand or whether he would pull out in favor of Gachechiladzde.

With the Labor Party leaving the opposition coalition, the number of parties in the group drops to nine. In previous elections, the Labor Party has pulled in about 10 percent of the vote.

Gachechiladzde 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 the parliament.

Reuters, AP