Georgians voted in parliamentary elections that have sparked fears of political instability in the former Soviet state. Georgia's election commission said the ruling party is ahead but many votes remain to be counted.
Preliminary results from Georgia's parliamentary election on Saturday shows the ruling Georgian Dream Party with a commanding lead.
With 22 percent of voting stations reporting, the Georgian Dream Party has 52.7 percent, compared with nearly 25 percent for the opposition United National Movement (UNM), according to the head of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Tamar Zhvania.
Even before the CEC released its preliminary results, the pro-Western Georgian Dream Party declared victory in the country of 3.7 million - shortly after the polls closed.
"I congratulate you with a big victory Georgia!" Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili told jubilant supporters gathered outside the party's headquarters in the capital, Tbilisi.
"According to all preliminary results, Georgian Dream is leading with a big advantage," he said, as dozens of party members waved blue party flags and balloons.
Exit polls released before the CEC announcement were far apart on the Georgian Dream Party lead.
One poll had the incumbents pulling in 54 percent versus just 19.5 for the leading opposition party. However, an exit poll from the independent channel Rustav-2 gave Georgian Dream a much narrower lead over the UNM - 39.9 to 32.7 percent .
"The real winner today is the Georgian people, but according to our information, we got 58-59 percent of the vote," Deputy Prime Minister Kakha Kaladze told the Reuters news agency.
Georgian Dream, led from behind the scenes by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, faced a strong challenge by the UNM, founded by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in the pro-Western Rose Revolution in 2003 before losing to Georgian Dream in 2013.
Saakashvili fled Georgia after being indicted on corruption charges; he's currently in exile as an appointed regional governor in Ukraine.
While the two main parties remain firmly committed to Georgia's pro-Western trajectory, for the first time in decades the vote may see one of several small pro-Moscow parties gain seats in parliament.
"If an anti-Western party secures a bargaining power in forming a coalition, that may have a negative impact on Georgia's bid for membership of the European Union and NATO," Corneli Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, told AFP.
Georgia fought and lost a brief war with Russia over the secessionist province of South Ossetia in 2008. Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has promised free and fair polls, which "will mark a truly important step to the future of democratic Georgia."
But already the campaign has been marred by an attempted murder of a UNM lawmaker whose car exploded Wednesday in central Tbilisi, wounding four bystanders. That came after two men were injured as unknown assailants on Sunday fired shots during a campaign rally held by an independent candidate in the central city of Gori.
Voting was monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The South Caucasus country's complex election rules means that the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may not become clear until late November.
But some Georgian Dream supporters, like 37-year-old Murman Sanikidze of Tbilisi, say the results are already apparent.
"I'm happy that Georgian Dream has won," she said. "I believe that they will do more for the people."
jar/bik/rc,lw (AFP, Reuters)