Ruling party set to win contested vote in former Soviet republic of Georgia

Georgian Dream party supporters cheer, wave flags and hold up balloons during a rally after the parliamentary elections in Tbilisi on Oct 8, 2016.
Georgian Dream party supporters cheer, wave flags and hold up balloons during a rally after the parliamentary elections in Tbilisi on Oct 8, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

TBILISI (AFP) - The ruling Georgian Dream party topped Georgia's legislative polls, official early results showed on Sunday (Oct 9), but accusations of vote rigging from the opposition sparked fears of political instability in the Caucasus nation.

With votes from over 54 per cent of precincts counted, the central election commission said Georgian Dream was leading main opposition force the United National Movement (UNM) by 50.44 per cent to 26.67 per cent.

The figures are for a proportional ballot that will decide 77 of the 150 seats in the legislature.

After voting closed on Saturday, the Georgian Dream was quick to declare victory based on exit polls which gave it a strong lead over the UNM.

But the UNM accused the government of attempts to "steal elections" and held a protest rally outside the central election commission.

"Votes have been stolen from us. We will defend our votes," Mr Nika Melia, chief of UNM's campaign and an MP candidate, told protesters, claiming that the electoral victory belonged to his party.

Several opposition parties - such as the Labour Party, Alliance of Patriots, and Democratic Georgia - cried foul, accusing the government of massive vote rigging.

The voting percentages that have been released so far may not necessarily be reflected in parliamentary seats because almost half will be determined on a first-past-the-post basis rather than by the proportional representation system.

Due to the country's complex election rules the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.

Georgian Dream, led from behind the scenes by billionaire former premier Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the UNM founded by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili had been neck and neck in opinion polls ahead of the election.

Tensions rose ahead of the vote in the former Soviet republic - which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 and seeks EU and NATO membership - after a car bombing and shooting incident at a rally.

Georgia's Western allies are watching closely to see if the strategic nation - praised as a rare example of democracy in the former Soviet region - can cement gains after its first transfer of power at the ballot box four years ago.

"This was a truly free and fair election, which firmly cements Georgia's democracy," Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said after the vote ended, but observers reported instances of procedural violations.

Election monitors and opposition politicians noted that Georgia's electoral environment and financing give an unfair advantage to the ruling party, which could potentially affect the vote's outcome.

Politics is still dominated by Mr Saakashvili and Mr Ivanishvili even though neither holds an official position.

The campaign was marred by Wednesday's attempted murder of a UNM lawmaker whose car exploded in central Tbilisi, injuring four passers-by.

The bombing prompted UNM to accuse the authorities of "creating a climate of hatred in which opposition politicians are being attacked".

It came after two men were injured when unknown assailants on Sunday fired shots during a campaign rally held by an independent candidate in the central city of Gori.

The poisonous atmosphere around the polarised vote follows years of what the opposition sees as political witch hunts and retribution against Mr Saakashvili and his team.

Mr Saakashvili, a charismatic reformer who took over in the Rose Revolution of 2003, was forced out of the country after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for abuse of power and now works as a regional governor in pro-Western Ukraine.

The crackdown on his allies has prompted concerns among Georgia's Western allies that the country could backslide after its sole orderly transfer of power in 2012.

The former president has pledged to return after the elections but the authorities warn they will detain him if he steps foot in the country.