TBILISI – Georgia's governing party claimed victory in a tightly contested parliamentary election Saturday, but an opposition alliance around an ex-president who has spent years in self-imposed exile refused to concede defeat and aspired to form a new coalition government in the ex-Soviet nation.
After the polls closed, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili quickly claimed victory for his ruling Georgian Dream party, but it wasn't immediately clear if it won enough votes to stay at the helm. Former President Mikhail Saakashvili charged in turn that a strong performance by his alliance would allow it to form a “national unity” government together with other opposition parties.
Georgian Dream has held a strong majority in the 150-seat parliament for eight years, but its popularity has dwindled steadily amid the country's economic problems.
Ivanishvili, who founded the party and made his fortune in Russia, quickly congratulated his supporters on winning the vote after all available exit polls showed his party with a strong lead.
“It needs to be emphasized that the Georgian Dream wins the elections for the third time," he said. “What our country wanted, a solid team, we have got it.”
But former President Mikhail Saakashvili also described the results as a “triumph” for his bloc, vowing to form a coalition government with other opposition parties.
“This is practically a great triumph of the Georgian opposition, despite the harassment, intimidation and pressure,” he said in televised remarks from Ukraine. “In these conditions, our main task is to form a government of national unity.”
The Georgian economy has been badly bruised by the COVID-!19 pandemic and is expected to shrink by 5% this year, while the currency is falling sharply.
This time, Georgian Dream faced a renewed challenge from an opposition coalition of the Strength is in Unity party and Saakashvili's United National Movement. The coalition has fielded Saakashvili as its candidate for the prime minister's job, but he said after the vote that he wasn't aspiring for the post, in an apparent bid to facilitate potential talks with other parties on forging an alliance.
Georgian Dream has nominated current Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia to stay on the job.
Speaking earlier in the day at a polling station after casting his ballot, Ivanishvili voiced confidence that his party would retain a strong majority and wouldn't need to form a coalition.
“We will come to power with an absolute majority, maybe not an absolute but a solid majority," Ivanishvili said, adding that he expects Georgian Dream to win about 100 seats. “We exclude (the possibility) of the coalition.”
United National Movement's leader Grigol Vashadze said it was "absolutely determined to change the government and return Georgia to a normal way of democratic development.”
Saakashvili, who served as president in 2004-2013 and moved abroad when his term ended, long has vowed to drive Georgian Dream from power. He currently holds an official job in Ukraine.
Both Georgian Dream and United National Movement are pro-Western, with goals of establishing better relations and possible eventual membership of NATO and the European Union.
During Saakashvili’s rule, Russia and Georgia fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions. The issue of the regions’ status has remained a key irritant, but ties between Moscow and Tbilisi have improved following Saakashvili’s departure.
The opposition has accused Georgian Dream of pursuing pro-Russian policies while claiming to be Western-oriented, charging that Ivanishvili, who holds no government job, has continued calling the shots in the Black Sea nation of 3.7 million.
“The Russian influence is getting larger and larger,” said UNM member Khatia Dekanoidze. “People are getting poorer, the economic situation is absolutely horrible and ... people have already decided it is time for real change."
Georgian parliament speaker Archil Talakvadze said the vote should help stabilize the economy and support efforts to integrate into the West.
“This is Georgia’s new opportunity to attract more investments and Georgia’s new opportunity actually to complete (its) path toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration,” Talakvadze told The Associated Press.
According to constitutional amendments approved earlier this year, a party would need to secure more than 40.54% of the vote to form a government.