Leaders of both opposing forces in Georgia claimed victory shortly after polls closed, setting the stage for a tense political standoff in one of the few democracies in the former Soviet space.
President Mikhail Saakashvili, facing the most serious challenge of his eight-year presidency, conceded in a brief, subdued address on television that the opposition coalition Georgian Dream seems to have won the most votes.
But, he claimed that his own United National Movement, has won the most seats in the 150-seat Parliament. When Saakashvili’s term ends in January, many presidential powers shift to the Prime Minister.
The party or coalition that controls parliament will appoint the next prime minister. If no party wins an outright majority, a third party, the Christian Democrats, may emerge as a kingmaker.
But Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the opposition, emerged ebullient from his headquarters. He also went on national television – and also claimed victory. “I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new parliament,” Ivanishvili told his cheering crowd supporters. “I have achieved what I have long been striving for.”
He confidently predicted that his Georgian Dream coalition had won enough seats to make a parliamentary majority.
His victory claim was echoed in the streets of Tbilisi where, well past midnight, motorcades of celebrating supporters snaked their way through the capital, horns blaring and blue, gold and white flags flapping in the light of a full moon.
Thousands gathered in a giddy celebration at Freedom Square where they applauded exit polls projected on a big screen from Ivanishvili’s Channel 9 television station.
The first official results are not expected until Tuesday.
But Giorgi Ivanidze, a muscular 21-year-old college student, said that Georgian Dream supporters will not settle for anything less than a majority in Parliament. “They will come out in the streets and show their position,” he said as he stood with university friends. “And the position of the Georgian people will be that most of the seats, maybe all of the seats, maybe 100 percent will be ours, the Georgian Dream’s.”
A few blocks away, supporters of Saakashvili’s party, watched glumly as opposition motorcades drove by the front door of their regional headquarters. Inside, Giorgi Khachidze, a spokesman estimated that the ruling party’s parliamentary bloc had been cut by at least one third, from its present level of 119 seats.
He predicted that the opposition would try to claim a parliamentary majority. “There will be some provocation from them, trying to make the picture like they won it, like they won the majority, but our government is prepared for this,” he said.
Over 400 foreign observers watched the voting on Monday.
Their reports, due Tuesday, are expected to greatly influence Georgians’ perception of fairness – or fraud – in the elections.
But, if Monday’s exit polls are accurate, the opposition won the most votes, while the ruling party won the most seats. This, analysts fear, could be a recipe for instability in Georgia, one of the few competitive democracies to take root in the former Soviet Union.