Georgia’s ruling party, founded by its richest man, claimed victory in Saturday’s parliamentary elections amid opposition protests that the polls were rigged.
The Georgian Dream of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili received 48.1% of votes counted by late Sunday to post its third straight election victory over the main opposition bloc that proposed his arch rival, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, as its candidate for prime minister.
Central Election Commission chairperson Tamar Zhvania said about 97% of votes have been counted and the total turnout was over 56%. All major exit polls showed the Georgian Dream would win, according to the ruling party’s general secretary Irakli Kobakhidze. The United National Movement and United Opposition bloc saw 27.1% of the vote.
“I believe from the results we have we can easily say we will form the government without any problems,” Kakha Kaladze, one of the leaders of the ruling party, said Sunday at a news conference in Tbilisi.
Ivanishvili founded the Georgian Dream in 2012 to challenge Saakashvili, the Rose Revolution leader who’d been in exile since his presidency ended in 2013 after the government accused him of abuse of power, which he denies.
Saakashvili, the leader of the United National Movement, said in televised comments late Saturday that he won’t let the government get away with rigged elections. Other opposition parties said they won’t accept the results, with supporters holding a rally Sunday outside the parliament building and blocking the main avenue in the capital.
“If there is something that can not be solved by talk, it will be solved in the streets,” UNM member Roman Gotsiridze told the crowd.
International election monitors said that overall fundamental freedoms were respected in the vote.
“Nevertheless, pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process,” the International Election Observation Mission said in a statement Sunday.
While officials have won praise for limiting the spread of coronavirus in Georgia, with far fewer cases reported than in neighboring states, the number of infections and deaths have been rising again in recent weeks.
Georgia’s economy has been hit hard by the epidemic, with the central bank forecasting a 5% decline in gross domestic product this year and the national currency tumbling to a record low 3.5 per dollar in March as tourism income dwindled amid lockdown restrictions. The lari has declined more than 11% this year so far.
“I think the protests are too early, they should go in and see if Georgian Dream will handle the crisis,” said Tornike Sharashenidze, a professor at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. The opposition should only not participate if they can prove the vote was rigged, he added.
A record 50 parties and electoral blocs competed for the 150 seats in the parliament of the Caucasus nation of 3.7 million. Georgian Dream won a super majority of 115 seats at the 2016 elections, but the threshold for entering parliament this time was cut to 1% under a revised voting system intended to expand representation of minority parties.
The framework for campaign financing, including high spending limits, disadvantaged smaller and new parties, the election observers said.
Parties contested for 120 seats via party list under proportional representation, while the remainder were decided by majority vote, compared to 77 and 73 respectively in 2016.
“We were capable of holding elections peacefully, with a high voter turnout and without severe violations,” said Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili in a statement, also pointing to the new electoral system and the challenges of a vote during the pandemic. “It is a step forward for democracy.”