Georgian rivals claim 'election wins'
The party of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili's and an opposition coalition both claimed victory in a parliamentary election in the former Soviet republic today, raising the prospect of a post-election standoff.
Any signs of instability would worry the West because of the Caucasus country's role as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and its pivotal location between Russia, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.
An exit poll predicted billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's six-party Georgian Dream would win more than half the ballots cast in party-list voting allocating 77 of the 150 seats in parliament.
But Mr Saakashvili's United National Movement said it believed it had won at least 53 of the 73 seats to be allotted in elections in individual constituencies.
"This means that the United National Movement will have a majority in the new parliament," spokeswoman Chiora Taktakishvili said in televised comments.
Mr Ivanishvili later said he believed Georgian Dream would dominate the assembly.
"I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new parliament," he told a crowd in the capital Tbilisi shortly after voting finished. "I have achieved what I have long been striving for.”
The first partial results are due in the coming hours but it is not clear when the final result will be known.
Mr Saakashvili swept to the presidency after the Rose Revolution of 2003 and led the Caucasus Mountain country into a disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008. He says Mr Ivanishvili would move the former Soviet republic away from the West and bring it back into Moscow's orbit.
Mr Ivanishvili (56), with a fortune nearly half the size of Georgia's economy, denies this.
The West, which has praised Mr Saakashvili as a reformer and opponent of corruption, is watching the election closely. Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels that the election was "a litmus test of the way democracy works in Georgia".
Before the vote, video of torture, beatings and sexual assault of prison inmates led to street protests after it was aired on two television channels opposed to Mr Saakashvili.
The furore undermined Mr Saakashvili's image as a reformer who had imposed the rule of law and rooted out corruption.
Mr Saakashvili (44), must step down after a presidential election next year, when reforms weakening the head of state and giving more power to parliament and the prime minister are to take effect.
If his United National Movement retains dominance of parliament, it may give him a way to remain in charge of the country of 4.5 million people.