TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the opposition both claimed victory Monday in a parliamentary election that has been shaken up by a prison abuse video that activists say showed the cruel, authoritarian face of the government.
The governing party was in a heated race with the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has posed the most serious challenge to the pro-Western president since Saakashvili came to power almost nine years ago.
No results have been released yet in Monday's vote. Emotions were running high, with scores of opposition supporters thronging the streets of Tbilisi, the capital, early Tuesday. Both sides, however, have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.
Two exit polls conducted by Edison Research and Gfk gave the edge to the opposition, but they were completed four hours before the voting stations closed and registered only 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 United National Movement is considered to have a strong advantage in this nation of 4.5 million people on the Black Sea.
Saakashvili, speaking on television shortly after the polls closed, said the opposition had indeed won the party vote, largely on the strength of its support in Tbilisi. Still, he insisted his party was far ahead in the direct elections and would retain its majority in parliament.
Georgian Dream, however, said its exit polls showed it would win the party vote by 63 percent and citing Ivanishvili as saying he was "prepared to ensure a parliamentary majority."
The Central Election Commission said the first preliminary results were expected at 3 a.m. Tuesday (2300GMT, 7 p.m. EST Monday).
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. Saakashvili has accused Ivanishvili of serving Kremlin interests and intending to put Georgia back under Russian domination, which the opposition leader has denied.
Ivanishvili, who made his money 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.
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 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 and party spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze reported some isolated problems Monday but said the voting had been reasonably calm.
After casting his vote, Saakashvili said the election was important not only for the nation but the region.
"A lot of things are being decided right now," he said, his Dutch wife and their young son standing behind him. "What happens to the European dream in this part of the world? What happens to the idea of democracy in this part of the world? What happens to the idea of reforms in this part of the world?"
Ivanishvili, the opposition leader, expressed confidence earlier Monday that his 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 accused 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 his 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. "The police force — it's 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 the 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 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.