TBILISI, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Georgia holds a parliamentary election on Monday in which President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling United National Movement (UNM) faces a challenge from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition.
Here are some key facts about Georgia and the election.
* Georgia is a nation of 4.5 million people in the South Caucasus. It has a shoreline on the Black Sea and borders Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. It is mostly Orthodox Christian.
* Georgia is one of 15 former republics of the Soviet Union that gained independence when country the fell apart in 1991. The Soviet collapse ended nearly two centuries of almost continuous dominance of Georgia by Russia and the Soviet Union.
* Georgia has aligned itself with the West under President Mikheil Saakashvili, seeking closer integration with NATO and the European Union and maintaining strong ties with the United States. It has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
* Tension with Russia erupted into a five-day war in August 2008, when Saakashvili's government launched an offensive on South Ossetia. Russian forces drove Georgian forces out of the region and penetrated deep into Georgia before withdrawing.
* Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed breakaway region, as independent nations after the war. Both had broken from central government control in conflicts in the early 1990s.
* Georgia withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a group of 11 former Soviet republics seen as dominated by Moscow, after the 2008 war. It is the only non-Baltic former Soviet republic outside the group.
* Georgia is a route for pipelines that carry oil and gas from the energy-rich Caspian Sea area westward toward Europe via Turkey, bypassing Russia.
* Sixteen political parties and blocs are contesting the parliamentary election. The main contenders are Saakashvili's United National Movement party (UNM) and Georgian Dream, an opposition coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
* Of the 150 seats in the single-chamber parliament, 77 will be filled through voting by party lists, in which the voter casts a ballot for a party which presents a list of candidates. The other 73 seats will be filled through voting for individual candidates in electoral districts.
In the party-list voting, a party needs to win at least 5 percent of the vote to gain representation in parliament, and a bloc needs to win at least 7 percent. In the individual races, the candidate with the most votes, and no less than 30 percent of total votes, wins a seat.
* UNM was founded by Saakashvili in 2001. The party won 119 of the 150 seats in the last election in 2008. Current parliament speaker David Bakradze heads the party list for the 2012 election.
The UNM campaign trumpets economic successes of the past eight years and pledges of more jobs and more investment in healthcare, education and agricultural sectors.
The party's foreign policy programme has a strong emphasis on integration with Western organisations such as the European Union and NATO.
* Georgian Dream is a coalition of six diverse parties with few connections in common aside from loyalty to Ivanishvili and opposition to Saakashvili. The coalition was named after a song by Ivanishvili's rapper son Bera.
Georgian Dream has built its campaign on vocal criticism of Saakashvili and his government.
* The Christian Democratic Party, led by former journalist Georgy Targamadze, also has a chance to win seats in the party-list voting. It is an opposition group in the current parliament and calls for a greater role for the Georgian Orthodox Church.
* Polls open at 8 a.m. (0400 GMT) and close at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT) at more than 3,600 polling stations across the country There are 3.6 million eligible voters.
* The election will be monitored by more than 1,600 international observers and more than 50,000 local observers. (Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Sophie Hares)