Polls have closed across Georgia in a parliamentary election seen as a test of stability in the ex-Soviet country.
Saturday’s vote saw the ruling Georgian Dream party, led from behind the scenes by Bidzina Ivanishvili , a billionaire former prime minister, facing a strong challenge from the United National Movement (UNM), founded by Mikheil Saakashvili, the exiled former president .
Tensions rose in the run-up to the vote after a car bombing that targeted an opposition deputy and a shooting incident at a political rally.
Georgia’s Western allies watch closely to see if the country can cement gains after its first peaceful transfer of power at the ballot box four years ago.
Voting was monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe.
“There are up to 19 political parties [and] several political blocs contesting these elections, and Georgians really do have a fair choice,” Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the capital Tbilisi, said.
Citing Georgia’s strategic location, as well as its war with Russia in 2008, he said that the outcome of the election was going to have an impact on the region’s stability.
“If it can go ahead peacefully, and if the results can be accepted, then it would be a major plus for Georgian democracy and an example to other countries in this part of the world,” he said.
The country’s politics remain dominated by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili , even though neither holds an official position, and their parties are hoping to score landslide victories.
But opinion polls have the two neck-and-neck in the race to form the next government, leaving analysts warning that the country of 3.7 million could slip into political turmoil if there is no outright winner.
Four years after Ivanishvili ‘s party ended nearly a decade of dominance by Saakashvili’s UNM, an economic slowdown and constant political confrontations means that the approval ratings of both sides are quite low.
Due to the country’s complex election rules, the final make-up of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.
The pre-election atmosphere in Georgia, a US ally, was already tense after an opposition deputy’s car was blown up in Tbilisi earlier this week.
Givi Targamadze survived unscathed, but five passers-by were injured.
In a separate attack, two men were shot and wounded on Sunday at a speech by Irakly Okruashvili, an independent candidate and former defence minister, in the town of Gori.
Both the government and the main opposition would like to see Georgia join the European Union and NATO, but such a move would be strongly resisted by Russia.
While the two leading parties remain firmly committed to Georgia’s pro-Western trajectory, for the first time in decades, the vote may see one of several small pro-Russian parties make it to the parliament.
The Georgian Dream party also favours stronger ties with Russia.
Originally a coalition of six parties, Georgian Dream was founded by Ivanishvili , who made his fortune in Russia. The party came to power in 2012, ending the nine-year rule of Saakashvili’s UNM.
It was the first peaceful transfer of power since the 1991 Soviet collapse and followed public protests over a scandal involving the mistreatment of prison inmates and accusations that Saakashvili was behaving in an authoritarian manner.
Under Georgian Dream, dozens of ex-officials, including a former prime minister, have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power, and some Western countries have accused the government of selectively applying justice.
Saakashvili was forced out of the country after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for abuse of power and now works as a regional governor in Ukraine.
He has pledged to return after the elections, but the authorities warn they will detain him if he steps foot in the country.
He says the charges against him are politically motivated.
Many Georgians accuse the government of mishandling the economy, which has been hit by a decline in exports and remittances despite expanding by 2.7 percent in the first eight months of this year.