TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Early returns and exit polls in a heated parliamentary election show that Georgian voters have turned against President Mikhail Saakashvili and the party that has been in power for almost nine years.
Saakashvili acknowledged that the popular vote on Monday went to the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose supporters in the capital celebrated throughout the night.
But the president insisted that his party would retain its majority in parliament since nearly half of the seats are chosen in separate direct elections.
The outcome will determine the future of Saakashvili's pro-Western government because of a constitutional reform that goes into effect next year giving the parliament greater powers at the expense of the presidency.
If Saakashvili's party loses, it would be the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history that a government has been changed not through revolution but at the ballot box.
Emotions were running high, and many feared that opposition supporters could turn angry if their victory proved short-lived. Both sides, however, are under pressure to prove their commitment to democracy and have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.
The Central Election Commission said a hacker attack on its website had delayed the release of the results. With 10 percent of precincts counted early Tuesday, Georgian Dream was leading in the popular vote for party list with 57 percent to 38 percent for Saakashvili's United National Movement.
An exit poll conducted by Edison Research gave a clear edge to the opposition, while a second by GfK had them running even but with 30 percent of people surveyed refusing to say how they voted. These polls, however, only registered the vote based on party lists, which is used to elect 77 of parliament's 150 members.
The remaining 73 members are directly elected by majority vote in their constituencies, where the president's party is considered to have the advantage in this mountainous nation of 4.5 million people on the Black Sea.
Speaking on television shortly after the polls closed, Saakashvili agreed that the opposition had won the party list vote, largely on the strength of its support in Tbilisi, the capital. Still, he insisted his party was far ahead in the direct elections in individual districts and would retain its majority in parliament.
He called on both sides to work together and leave behind a campaign that was "tense, emotional and unfortunately often dirty."
Georgian Dream, however, said its exit poll showed it would win a majority of the parliament seats.
Tbilisi resounded late into the night with car horns and cheering as Georgian Dream supporters celebrated. Thousands gathered on Freedom Square, where they opened bottles of wine, sang songs and hugged one another. Cars drove through the city with young men hanging out of the windows and sunroofs, waving the party's blue flags.
Under Saakashvili, the former Soviet republic has aligned itself with the United States, while striving to join the European Union and NATO.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has said he would pursue these strategic goals while also seeking to restore the ties with Moscow that were severed when the two neighboring countries fought a brief war in 2008 over two breakaway Georgian provinces.
Saakashvili has accused Ivanishvili of serving Kremlin interests and intending to put Georgia back under Russian domination, which the opposition leader has denied.
Saakashvili's campaign was hit hard by the release two weeks ago of shocking videos showing prisoners in a Tbilisi jail being beaten and sodomized. The government moved quickly to stem the anger, replacing Cabinet ministers blamed for the abuse and arresting prison staff, but many saw the videos as illustrating the excesses of his government.
The U.S. ambassador joined in the calls for a peaceful election.
"I encourage the public to remain calm, have faith and be patient while all the results are counted and any challenges are properly evaluated," Ambassador Richard Norland said.
The opposition party had complained of violations during the campaign. Party spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze reported some isolated problems Monday but said the voting had been reasonably calm.
Ivanishvili expressed confidence earlier Monday that his opposition coalition would win.
"For the first time in Georgian history the Georgian people are managing to conduct really democratic elections," he said.
Many in the opposition accuse Saakashvili of authoritarian rule.
"Without a doubt, Saakashvili and all of his people should leave," said Mamuka Gigienishvili, a 55-year-old physicist who voted in Tbilisi. "We have had enough of him acting like a czar."
She said the ruling party "labeled anyone with a different opinion a traitor ... as if only they were able to lead the country in the right direction."
But Veriko Berishvili, a 49-year-old small business owner, noted all that Saakashvili had done to reform Georgia since coming to power. She specifically named the disbanding of the corrupt traffic police and creation of a modern force.
"I think we should allow this team to fulfill its promises: to improve the situation in agriculture, decide the problem of joblessness, universal health insurance," she said. "Now all of this is being handled by Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili. Look at his baby, the police force. It is the best in the former Soviet Union."
Saakashvili has taken a zero-tolerance approach to crime, which has eradicated petty corruption and made the streets safe again. The flip side has been a huge increase in the prison population and the power of prosecutors.
He also enacted reforms and attracted foreign investment that together has produced dramatic economic growth. Poverty and unemployment rates, however, remain high.
Saakashvili came to power after anger over a rigged parliamentary election in November 2003 led to the Rose Revolution and the ouster of Eduard Shevardnadze, who had taken power in 1992 after a military coup. Saakashvili won a presidential election in January 2004 and was re-elected four years later. His United National Movement won 119 of the 150 parliament seats in the 2008 election.
Monday's vote sets in motion a change that will reduce the powers of the presidency. The party that wins the majority in parliament will name the prime minister. When Saakashvili's second and last presidential term ends next year, many of the president's powers will be transferred to the prime minister.
If Saakashvili's party wins on Monday, he has said he does not intend to become prime minister. Such a job swap would bring unwelcome comparisons to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ivanishvili is not running for a seat in parliament, but has said that if his Georgian Dream coalition wins he would serve as prime minister at least for a year or two to put his team in place.