TBILISI (AFP) – Georgia was on the verge of a political crisis on Sunday (Nov 1) as opposition parties called mass protests, rejecting parliamentary poll results after the election commission announced the ruling party held a narrow lead.
Elections in the pro-western country of nearly four million people regularly spark mass protests, with only one orderly transition of power after a parliamentary vote in 2012.
With votes from more than 72 per cent of precincts counted, the Georgian Dream led the opposition by 48.5 per cent to 45 per cent in a proportional ballot that will decide 120 of the 150 seats in the legislature, the Central Election Commission said.
The ruling party’s leader, billionaire ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, said his party “has won elections for the third time in a row”.
“Georgians have elected a great team,” he added.
But opposition leader, exiled former president Mikhail Saakashvili, said Georgian Dream “is massively falsifying election results” and announced a “mass mobilisation (of supporters) to defend the votes”.
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In an unprecedented show of unity months ahead of the vote, Mr Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and smaller opposition groups joined forces to challenge the ruling party.
They had held talks on forming a coalition government if 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.
Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Ivanishvili of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system in which private interests dominate politics.
“An oligarch who owns some 40 per cent of Georgia’s national wealth has appropriated the country and is ruling it as his fiefdom,” Mr Saakashvili told AFP in an interview ahead of the vote.
Despite a spike in coronavirus infections, voter turnout stood at more than 56 per cent, up from 51 per cent in the 2016 parliamentary elections, the Central Election Commission said.
International monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe are due to present their preliminary assessment of the conduct of the vote at a press conference later on Sunday.