Opposition supporters react in central square during rally in Tbilisi Georgia, Monday (Photo: AP)
Supporters of Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream opposition coalition celebrated long into the night after exit polls offered them hope of winning Monday's vote. But a complex electoral system meant the ruling party could still triumph, sparking fears of disputed results and potential unrest.
Early results showed Georgian Dream leading the ruling United National Movement by 52.77 to 42.08 percent after 15.35 percent of electoral precincts declared results in the proportional ballot that will decide just over half of parliamentary seats.
The showdown became increasingly bitter after a prison torture scandal prompted nationwide protests ahead of the vote in the Western-backed ex-Soviet state ruled by Saakashvili's party since the 2003 "Rose Revolution".
Ivanishvili declared victory immediately after several exit polls suggested late Monday that his coalition was either ahead or running neck-and-neck with the ruling party in the proportional-vote section of the contest.
"We have won! The Georgian people have won!" he said in a televised speech.
Thousands of jubilant opposition supporters celebrated in Tbilisi's central Freedom Square after the exit polls were announced, cheering and shouting: "Long live Georgia!"
Cars full of more euphoric supporters raced up and down the capital's main street, sounding their horns, whistling and waving flags.
But his coalition could still lose because almost half of parliamentary seats are decided on a first-past-the-post basis rather than the proportional representation system that provided the basis for the exit polls.
"We need to wait for results, but it seems clear that the Georgian Dream coalition has won the majority in the proportional vote but in single-mandate constituencies, the majority of votes has been secured by Georgia's (ruling) United National Movement," Saakashvili said in televised comments.
Ruling party spokeswoman Chiora Taktakishvili predicted on television late Monday the United National Movement would have a "solid majority" in the new parliament but Saakashvili was more equivocal in his remarks.
The elections are crucial for Georgia's future because its parliament and prime minister will become stronger and the presidency's powers will dwindle under constitutional changes that come into force after Saakashvili's two-term rule ends in 2013.
Were Ivanishvili's bloc to win a majority, it would upset the dominance Saakashvili has built up over the country of 4.5 million in the last nine years and risk making him a lame duck until his term ends.
Before the torture scandal sparked by revelations of the brutal beating and rape of male prison inmates erupted last month, most opinion polls gave the ruling party a significant lead, but the outrage damaged its campaign.
Turnout was 61 percent, the Central Election Commission said.
"The elections were held in an unprecedentedly competitive environment and the final result will accurately reflect the people’s will," the commission's chief Zurab Kharatishvili said in a statement.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune through privatisation deals in Russia, had threatened to call mass demonstrations should Western observers fail to declare the vote fair.
OSCE monitors are at 1030 GMT expected to give their verdict on the election, which is being keenly watched by the West which sees democratic progress as crucial for Georgia's ambitions to join institutions like NATO.
The polls were a "litmus test of the way democracy works in Georgia", NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday.
Saakashvili's party controlled 119 of the 150 seats in the outgoing parliament and has dominated Georgia since the charismatic lawyer rose to power after the "Rose Revolution" that ousted the country's former leader, ex-Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
Since post-Soviet independence, Georgia has gone through economic collapse, civil war and repeated outbreaks of political unrest that have seen two presidents deposed and a five-day war with arch-foe Russia in 2008.