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Saakashvili's party defeated, polls suggest

Georgia's opposition is set to win a majority in parliamentary elections, early exit polls predict. If projections are accurate, the incumbent Mikhail Saakashvili may have to contend with an adversarial new parliament .

Georgia's opposition party claimed victory in parliamentary elections on Monday, as exit polls showed the government's challengers to have won a clear victory over President Mikhail Saakashvili's party.

Rustavi-2 television channel projected that the opposing Georgian Dream Party, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, would win 51 percent of ballots cast, with Saakashvili's ruling Single National Movement gaining 41 percent. The report cited a survey carried out by the US firm Edison Research. A spokesman for polling organization GfK also said during the television report that the Single National Movement could gain as little as 30 percent of the votes.

The poor predicted results for Saakashvili's party shortly follow a damaging prison torture scandal, which sparked a political uproar in Georgia. Videos were broadcast on two television channels, one of them owned by Ivanishvili, showing the torture and rape of male prisoners. Protesters took to the streets during the closing days of the political campaign for the parliamentary elections, forcing the interior minister and minister for corrections and legal assistance to resign.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

A prison torture scandal may have affected Saakashvili's party's performance in the elections

Voter turnout had reached 53 percent at 5:00 p.m. local time, according to Georgia's Central Election Commission spokeswoman Ekaterine Azarashvili.

A new chapter in Georgian politics?

Earlier in the day, whilst casting his own ballot in front of the cameras, Saakashvili had said the election would "decide the fate of Georgia."

The results, if accurate, could herald a tumultuous new chapter in Georgian politics, with Saakashvili being forced to work with an opposition-controlled parliament until presidential elections in 2013.

The results are also likely to raise questions about the future direction of Georgian foreign policy, especially in terms of whether it should prioritize improving relations with Russia or the West.

Courting friends: the West or Russia?

Georgia's billionaire and opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili,(AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov)

Ivanishvili wants to nurture better relations with Russia

Saakashvili has carved out a pro-Western course that seeks close ties with the US and EU and future membership in NATO. But Ivanishvili, who made much of his money in Russia, wants to mend ties with Moscow - Georgia's former Soviet ruler. In 2008, Tbilisi fought a brief war with Russia, in which Georgia lost one fifth of its territory after South Ossetia and Abkhazia seceded from the Caucasus nation with the help of Moscow.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton, Maja Kocijancic, said Monday that the outcome of the elections would determine the future direction of Georgia's relationship with Europe. Kocijancic added that a team of international election observers were expected to publish a preliminary report on Tuesday, which will inform the EU's official response to the "quite crucial" poll.

sej/msh (dpa, IFAX, AFP, Reuters)