Georgia's governing party has won the tightly contested parliamentary election, according to preliminary results announced by the country's electoral commission on Sunday, but the opposition refuses to recognise the results.
The electoral commission said that with 95 per cent of the vote counted, the ruling Georgian Dream party had gathered 48.1 per cent of the vote in Saturday's election.
The biggest opposition alliance, the United National Movement party, is credited with 26.9 per cent of the vote.
Irakli Kobahidze, Georgian Dream's executive secretary, said the party won enough seats in the 150-seat parliament to form a government.
But the opposition has accused the ruling party of vote-rigging.
"There are many precincts where Georgian Dream got 300 plus votes where turnout was 50, 60 or less than 70 people. It's all on the paper," Mikhail Saakashvili, a former president who now runs the main alliance party, said in a Facebook video.
"They're blatantly stealing Georgian elections in the eyes of the world," he added.
He called on the international community to "not leave us alone in that precarious circumstance".
"Don't turn a blind eye on blatant violation of every principle of democracy and freedom of elections. Don't stay passive. I'm appealing to you and I count on your help, he continued.
Drawing comparison to recent events in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, he said the people would "rise" and "fight anyway". "But we also need your support."
A 'competitive election'
As crowds gathered in parliament in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Sunday, the opposition called for a rerun. United National Movement was in talks with other opposition parties on holding a new election, Tina Bokuchava, a member of the party, was quoted by the Georgian 1TV broadcaster as saying.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe described the election in a statement on Sunday as "competitive" and said that "overall, fundamental freedoms were respected."
"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," it added.
Georgian Dream, founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishili, 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 on Saturday after all available exit polls showed his party with a strong lead.
“It needs to be emphasised that the Georgian Dream wins the elections for the third time," he said. “What our country wanted, a solid team, we have got it.”
Georgian Dream has nominated current Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia to stay on in the job.
But 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.”
Saakashvili, who served as president from 2004-2013 and moved abroad when his term ended, has long vowed to drive Georgian Dream from power. He was initially fielded as the coalition's candidate for the prime minister's jobs, but he said after the vote that he wasn't aspiring to the post, in an apparent bid to facilitate talks with other parties on forging an alliance.
'Russian influence getting larger and larger'
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.
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 stabilise 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.