Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the opposition are both claiming victory in the country’s parliamentary election, but it remains unclear which side will win the final majority.
The governing party was in a heated race against the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has posed the most serious challenge to the pro-Western president since Saakashvili came to power almost nine years ago.
Ivanishvili declared victory for the Georgian Dream coalition on Monday after exit polls indicated that he was in the lead.
Thousands of his supporters celebrated in the streets of the capital Tbilisi on Monday night, sounding car horns and carrying blue party banners and red-on-white national flags over their heads.
“I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new [150 seat] parliament,” Ivanishvili told a cheering crowd. “I have achieved what I have long been striving for.”
But a tense stand-off loomed over the results of the poll, which under Georgia’s electoral system allocates seats according to both party lists and constituency victories.
Exit polls showed Ivanishvili’s coalition had won more votes in balloting by party list to fill 77 of the parliament seats, while Saakashvili’s party claimed it had won most of the individual races to fill the other 73 seats.
The showdown between Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement (UNM) and the Georgian Dream coalition has turned increasingly bitter after a prison torture scandal prompted nationwide protests.
A preliminary exit poll for the pro-government Rustavi-2 and Imedi channels gave Georgian Dream a lead over UNM party by 51 to 41 per cent.
The exit poll for state television said Ivanishvili’s coalition had won 35 per cent of the vote, ahead of Saakashvili’s ruling party with 30 per cent.
“We have won! The Georgian people have won!” Ivanishvili said in a speech televised by opposition channel TV9 on Monday.
But the ruling party has said that because of Georgia’s complex voting system, the opposition may not win a final majority in parliament.
“We need to wait for results, but it seems clear that the Georgian Dream coalition has won the majority in the proportional vote but in single-mandate constituencies, the majority of votes has been secured by Georgia’s [ruling] United National Movement,” Saakashvili said in televised comments.
The first official results trickling in early on Tuesday indicated the Georgian Dream was ahead of the UNM.
With about three per cent of ballots counted, Georgian Dream had 51.6 per cent and the UNM had 43.9 per cent in the party-list voting that will fill 77 of the 150 seats in parliament, the Central Election Commission website said.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the capital Tbilisi, said that outside of Georgia “these elections are seen as important because Georgia is considered to be the darling of democratic reform of a state that was part of the former Soviet Union”.
“Under legislative reform, parliament is going to be much more important next year,” he said.
“But the way in which the government has been carrying out reform has started to polarise Georgian society,” he added.
Before the torture scandal, which followed revelations of the torture and rape of prison inmates, most opinion polls gave the ruling party a significant lead, but the outrage seriously damaged its campaign.
Ivanishvili, who made a fortune through privatisation deals in Russia, has threatened to call mass demonstrations should Western observers fail to declare the vote fair.
In a hugely controversial move that troubled the West, Ivanishvili was stripped of his Georgian citizenship after announcing last year that he would challenge Saakashvili, and is currently a French citizen. He symbolically did not vote on Monday despite constitutional amendments earlier this year that allowed him to do so.