TBILISI, GEORGIA— Leaders of both opposing forces in Georgia claimed victory shortly after polls closed on Monday, setting the stage for a tense political standoff in one of the few democracies in the former Soviet Union.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, facing the most serious challenge of his 8-year presidency, conceded in a brief television address that the opposition coalition Georgian Dream seems to have won the most votes. But he said his own United National Movement had won the most seats in the 150-seat parliament.
When Saakashvili’s term ends in January, many presidential powers will 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, could play a pivotal role in deciding who will be the country's prime minister.
But Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the opposition, emerged ebullient from his headquarters. He also went on national television and claimed victory.
“I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new parliament," Ivanishvili told his cheering supporters. "I have achieved what I have long been striving for." He predicted that his Georgian Dream coalition had won enough seats for a parliamentary majority.
His declaration of was echoed in the streets of Tbilisi where, motorcades of supporters snaked their way through the capital - horns blaring, and blue, gold and white flags flapping in the moonlight. Thousands of people gathered in Freedom Square, where they applauded exit polls projected on a big screen.
The first official results are not expected until Tuesday. But Giorgi Ivanidze, a 21-year-old college student, said 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. “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 as opposition motorcades drove by their regional headquarters.
Inside, Spokesman Giorgi Khachidze estimated that the ruling party’s parliamentary bloc had been cut by at least one-third - from 119 to 80. He predicted that the opposition will 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.
More than 400 foreign observers watched the voting on Monday. Their reports, due Tuesday, are expected to greatly influence Georgian perceptions of fairness in the elections.
If Monday’s exit polls are accurate, the opposition received the most votes, while the ruling party won the most seats in parliament. Some analysts this could lead to instability in Georgia, one of the few competitive democracies to take root in the former Soviet Union.