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article imageExit polls project ruling party win in Georgia vote

By Irakli METREVELI (AFP)     Oct 8, 2016 in Politics

The ruling Georgian Dream party was projected to win Georgia's parliamentary elections, two rival exit polls commissioned by pro-government and pro-opposition TV stations showed Saturday.

The exit poll commissioned by a group of TV channels considered close to the ruling party, gave Georgian Dream 53.8 percent of the vote, with the opposition United National Movement in second place at 19.5 percent.

Another exit poll released by the pro-opposition Rustavi 2 TV said the two pro-Western parties Georgian Dream and UNM received 39.9 percent and 32.74 percent of the vote, respectively.

That poll also said that -- for the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history -- a small pro-Russian party, Alliance of Patriots, cleared the five-percent threshold to enter parliament.

The vote percentages 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 that was the basis for both exit polls.

Due to the country's complex election rules the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.

Georgian Dream, led from 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.

- Unfair advantage -

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.

A man leaves a voting booth at a polling station in Tbilisi on October 8  2016
A man leaves a voting booth at a polling station in Tbilisi on October 8, 2016
Vano Shlamov, AFP

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.

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili promised free and fair polls, but observers reported instances of procedural violations.

Election monitors and opposition politicians noted that Georgia's electoral environment and financing give an unfair advantage to the ruling party, which could potentially affect the vote's outcome.

Turnout was 42 percent at 1300 GMT, nine hours after polls opened, the Central Election Commission spokeswoman Ketevan Janelidze told AFP.

- 'Climate of hatred' -

Politics is still dominated by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili even though neither holds an official position.

Banners for the upcoming parliamentary polls are seen in Gremi  some 100 km from Tbilisi  on October...
Banners for the upcoming parliamentary polls are seen in Gremi, some 100 km from Tbilisi, on October 2, 2016
Kirill Kudryavtsev, AFP/File

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 witch hunts 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.

Voting, which started at 0400 GMT and ended at 1600 GMT, was being monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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