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Georgians vote for local leaders in 1st ballot since country's 2008 war with Russia

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Voters in Georgia chose local leaders Sunday in the first ballot since President Mikhail Saakashvili led the country into a disastrous war with neighboring Russia nearly two years ago.

Saakashvili's rule has elevated Georgia's status in the West yet turned it into a bitter adversary of Russia. The brief 2008 war, which Georgia lost, allowed Moscow to consolidate control over two breakaway regions in Georgia — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — and produced an influx of thousands of refugees whose homes were destroyed.

Yet given Georgia's fractured opposition, Saakashvili's party, the United National Movement, is expected to do well in Sunday's election.

"I am confident in our party's victory, and United National Movement will keep on winning while the country progresses," Saakashvili said while casting his ballot in Tbilisi, the nation's capital.

Voters will elect 64 local councils and, for the first time ever, the mayor of Tbilisi — an influential post that could become a stepping stone for Saakashvili's successor when the Georgian president's second and final term ends in 2013.

Georgi Urushadze, 70, said he voted for the president's party.

"There was a time when I was against Saakashvili and his party — they made a lot of mistakes. But look around now — Tbilisi is developing, and pensions are increasing. You'd have to be blind not to see it," he said.

But Lado Beridze, a 26-year-old businessman in Tbilisi, cast his vote for the Christian-Democrats.

"They're the party of the future. When they come to power, lots of things will change. There won't by any flip-flopping characteristic of Saakashvili," he said.

Dzhuli Giorgadze, a spokeswoman for the central election commission, said 40 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by 5 p.m.