Tbilisi, Georgia, Oct 31 – Georgia’s ruling party and a grouping of opposition forces both claimed victory in parliamentary elections on Saturday after rival exit polls showed contradictory results, sparking fears of political instability.
The ruling Georgian Dream party leader, billionaire ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, said his party “won elections for the third time in a row”, while opposition leader, exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili, claimed “opposition parties scored a triumphal win”.
Polls in the country of nearly four million people regularly spark mass protests, with only one orderly transition of power after a parliamentary vote in 2012.
An exit poll by pro-government Imedi TV station said Georgian Dream led elections with 55 percent, while an exit poll commissioned by the pro-opposition Mtavari TV said opposition parties garnered 52 percent of the votes.
“Opposition parties must now form a government of national unity,” Saakashvili said in televised remarks.
“I, personally, have no ambitions for a government post,” he added, speaking from Ukraine, where he serves as President Volodymyr Zelensky’s advisor on political and economic reforms.
– Closely watched by the West –
In an unprecedented show of unity months ahead of the vote, Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and smaller opposition groups have joined forces to challenge the ruling party.
They had held talks on forming a coalition government if they are elected.
The election is being closely watched by Tbilisi’s Western allies to see if Georgia can keep up its reputation as a rare example of a democracy among ex-Soviet countries.
“Georgia has committed to uphold international standards for free and fair elections,” US ambassador Kelly Degnan said on Facebook.
“The international community is watching to see that these standards are met, because Georgia’s voters deserve to cast their ballots in a free and fair election,” she said.
Due to Georgia’s complex election rules the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear in late November.
Saakashvili, a charismatic reformer was forced to flee Georgia at the end of his second term as president in 2013, fearing arrest after prosecutors accused him of abusing power — charges he has denied.
Western capitals have accused the Georgian Dream-led government of mounting a political witch-hunt against the ex-president and his allies and Interpol has turned down requests from Tbilisi to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.
– ‘Rules Georgia as fiefdom’ –
In power since 2012, Georgian Dream’s popularity has plummeted due to discontent over its failure to address economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.
Critics accuse Ivanishvili of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system in which private interests dominate politics.
“An oligarch who owns some 40 percent of Georgia’s national wealth has appropriated the country and is ruling it as his fiefdom,” Saakashvili told AFP in an interview ahead of the vote.
Dozens of voters queued in the autumn sunshine outside a polling station in the centre of the capital Tbilisi minutes after polls opened at 0400 GMT, with many wearing masks.
“I am very optimistic, Georgia will today get rid of Ivanishvili and his corrupt government,” plumber Lasha Guruli told AFP.
Another voter, mathematician Lamara Lagvilava, said she had also voted for the opposition.
“Georgia can’t stand any longer the incompetence of the Georgian Dream government,” she added.
Despite a spike in coronavirus infections, voter turnout stood at nearly 46 percent as of 1300 GMT — higher than during the parliamentary elections in 2016, the Central Election Commission said.
Voting, which ended at 1600 GMT, was being monitored by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The first preliminary results are expected to be released after 2000 GMT.