The ruling Georgian Dream party won Georgia\’s parliamentary polls, early results showed Sunday, but accusations of vote rigging from the opposition sparked fears of political instability in the Caucasus nation.
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.
With votes from more than 67 percent of precincts counted, the central election commission said Georgian Dream was leading main opposition force the United National Movement (UNM) by 49.76 percent to 26.69 percent.
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," Nika Melia, chief of UNM\’s campaign and an MP candidate, told protesters.
Several opposition parties -– such as Democratic Georgia, the Labour Party, and the Alliance of Patriots — also cried foul, accusing the government of massive vote rigging.
"Our party will not recognise these results. The elections were not free and fair," former parliament speaker and the leader of Democratic Georgia party, Nino Burjanadze, told AFP.
"We have evidence of electoral fraud in favour of the Georgian Dream, such as multiple voting," she added.
Georgian Dream, led behind the scenes by billionaire ex-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.
Western monitors with the OSCE are to speak about the polls later Sunday.
The leader of the State for People party, acclaimed opera singer Paata Burchuladze, said the authorities have "massively falsified elections."
The Labour Party leader Shalva Natelashvili told AFP Ivanishvili was "personally responsible for unprecedented vote rigging, discrimination and repressions of opponents."
The voting percentages that have so far been released are for a proportional ballot that will decide 77 of the 150 seats in the legislature.
The figures 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.
Tensions rose ahead of the vote in the ex-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.
"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 had noted that Georgia\’s electoral environment and financing give an unfair advantage to the ruling party, which could potentially affect the vote\’s outcome.
– Climate of hatred –
Politics is still dominated by Saakashvili and 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 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 witchhunts and retribution against Saakashvili and his team.
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 ex-president has pledged to return after the elections but the authorities warn they will detain him if he steps foot in the country.