October 08, 2016 - 1:17 PM
TBILISI, Georgia - Two exit polls in Georgia's parliamentary election on Saturday showed the ruling party in the lead, but the polls differed sizably on the margin of victory.
Regardless of the election's outcome, the former Soviet republic appears determined to integrate more closely with the West, including keeping alive distant hopes of joining the European Union and NATO.
A poll conducted for Georgia's public broadcaster and other stations showed the ruling Georgian Dream party with nearly 54 per cent of the vote Saturday and the opposition United National Movement at 19.5 per cent support.
But an exit poll for the independent channel Rustavi-2 put the figures at 39.9 per cent for the ruling party and 32.7 per cent for the opposition.
The discrepancy could feed tensions after a campaign that included a car bombing of one prominent opposition politician and shots fired at another candidate.
About 100 assailants attacked a polling station Saturday in the town of Marneuli, 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the capital, Tbilisi. Police said the assailants were supporters of the UNM.
Based on the exit polls, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili told Georgian Dream party members: "I congratulate you on a big victory."
"These elections are a very important step forward toward reinforcing Georgia's image as a democratic European state," Kvirikashvili said after casting his ballot.
But UNM leader David Bakradze told journalists he believes his party will prevail once single-constituency races are tallied. Of the 150 seats in parliament, 77 are chosen by proportional representation and 73 are in single districts.
The small, pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots was likely to pass the 5-per cent threshold it needs to be allotted seats, according to the exit polls.
The contest highlighted the often disorderly political climate in a country that has endured revolutions both violent and peaceful over the past three decades. Enthusiasm among the electorate was low; just 51 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to the national elections commission.
In all, 25 parties or groups competed for the 77 seats that will be chosen by party-list voting; more than 800 candidates ran for the 73 single-district seats.
Each of the two main parties carries substantial baggage.
Georgian Dream, which came to power in the 2012 elections, is the creation of tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister who appeared prominently in the "Panama Papers" leak about officials with offshore accounts.
Although Ivanishvili does not currently hold office, he is believed to wield enormous influence. Many Georgians consider him a Trojan horse for Russia because of his business connections there and his attempts to improve relations with Moscow, which were badly damaged by the 2008 war between the two countries.
Adding to the tensions, one of the campaign's most prominent figures has been Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship after he became leader of one of Ukraine's most troubled regions, Odesa.
Saakashvili is vowing a triumphant return if his UNM supporters in Georgia win power but he is a divisive figure.
While Saakashvili and the UNM are credited with enacting important police and economic reforms after the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, opposition to him grew for being hot-tempered and uncompromising.
He had to address the rally in Tbilisi through a video linkup because he left the country after his term ended in 2013, then was charged in absentia with abuse of office. Saakashvili declared that if UNM regains power in Georgia, "I will cross the sea" to return to his homeland.
Georgian Dream continued the reform path that Saakashvili laid out and this year achieved an agreement with the EU that boosts trade and political relations. But Georgia remains troubled by high unemployment of about 12 per cent, low pensions and other economic concerns.
The tensions underlying the election surfaced in violent incidents over the past week.
On Sunday, two people were wounded by gunshots at a campaign rally for candidate and former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili. He claimed the gunmen were affiliated with Georgian Dream.
On Tuesday, an explosion destroyed the automobile of lawmaker Givi Targamadze, a Saakashvili ally. Georgia's Interior Ministry says police have identified a suspect in the bombing and that weapons and explosives had been seized as part of the investigation.
Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016