Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has conceded a shock defeat to a billionaire tycoon in parliamentary polls, ending nine years of dominance that antagonised Russia and brought Tbilisi closer to the West.
Although Saakashvili remains president, the defeat of his United National Movement by Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition in Monday's elections means he will lose control of parliament and the government.
His apparently graceful acceptance of the unexpected defeat on Tuesday marks one of the first times Georgia has seen a peaceful transfer of power since the fall of the Soviet Union.
"It is clear that the [opposition] Georgian Dream has won a majority," Saakashvili said in a dramatic televised speech after elections hailed as an "important step" for democracy by international observers.
"We, as an opposition force, will fight for the future of our country," he said.
Saakashvili will remain as the leader of Georgia until his second and last term ends in October 2013. Under a constitutional reform that goes into effect after he leaves office, many of the president's powers will be transferred to the prime minister.
Ivanishvili appears the favourite to replace Saakashvili's close ally Vano Merabishvili as prime minister although under current rules he will still have to be nominated by the president and approved by parliament.
Calls for resignation
At his first post-election news conference, a triumphant Ivanishvili called on Saakashvili to quit: "The only right decision now for Saakashvili would be to resign," he said.
He declared that most of the president's widely praised reforms were a joke and said Saakashvili had deceived the Americans into believing he was a democrat.
"I have always blamed Saakashvili for what has gone wrong in Georgia, and I can repeat that today: This man's ideology has established a climate of lies, violence and torture"
- Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of Georgian Dream coalition
"I have always blamed Saakashvili for what has gone wrong in Georgia, and I can repeat that today: This man's ideology has established a climate of lies, violence and torture," he said.
Georgian Dream was leading Saakashvili's United National Movement by 54.02 to 41.23 per cent after 72.84 per cent of electoral precincts declared results in the proportional ballot that will decide just over half of the parliamentary seats.
In the opposition stronghold Tbilisi, Georgian Dream candidates were leading in nine of the capital's 10 first-past-the-post constituencies.
Such votes in 73 constituencies nationwide will make up the remainder of the parliament.
By conceding defeat even before the results of the election were released, Saakashvili defied the opposition's expectations that he would cling to power at all costs and preserved his legacy as a pro-Western leader who brought democracy to the former Soviet republic.
He also prevented potential violence on the emotionally charged streets of Tbilisi. Opposition supporters began celebrating there as soon as the polls closed, and the mood could have turned ugly very quickly if they thought they were being deprived of a victory.
In Washington, the White House welcomed the vote as "the achievement of another milestone in Georgia's democratic development" and urged Saakashvili and Ivanishvili to "work together in the spirit of national unity".
|Supporters of opposition Georgian Dream party celebrate their victory in the parliamentary election [EPA]
In neighbouring Russia, the government welcomed Saakashvili's defeat, for he and President Vladimir Putin have had a deep enmity since a brief 2008 war between their nations.
During his nearly nine years in power, Saakashvili has pushed through economic and political reforms and attracted international investment that has led to dramatic economic growth. Poverty and unemployment, however, remain painfully high.
Still, many Georgians have turned against Saakashvili in recent years. Many accuse his UNM party - which has controlled not only the government and Parliament but also the courts and prosecutor's office - of exercising authoritarian powers.
Saakashvili's campaign was also hit hard by the release two weeks ago of shocking videos showing prisoners in a Tbilisi jail being beaten and sodomised.
The government moved quickly to stem the anger, replacing Cabinet ministers blamed for the abuse and arresting prison staff, but many saw the videos as illustrating the excesses of his government.
In his televised concession speech, the president said there were deep differences between his party and the diverse opposition coalition.
"We think their views are completely wrong," he said. "But democracy works through the majority of the Georgian people making a decision, and we respect this very much."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies