World Bulletin / News Desk
Georgians voted Saturday in bitterly contested parliamentary polls that have sparked fears of political instability in the Caucasus nation, with two pro-Western parties tied after a fraught campaign.
The knife-edge elections see the ruling Georgian Dream party, led from behind the scenes by billionaire ex-PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, grappling with the United National Movement (UNM), founded by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Tensions have risen ahead of the vote in the ex-Soviet republic -- which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 and seeks EU and NATO membership -- after a car bombing and shooting incident at a rally.
Georgia's Western allies will be watching closely to see if the strategic nation -- praised as a rare example of democracy in the former Soviet region -- can cement gains after its first transfer of power at the ballot box four years ago.
"We are making a step towards strengthening our country and democracy," Georgia's President Giorgi Margvelashvili told journalists after casting his ballot.
"I voted for the Georgian parliament where many political parties will be represented," he said.
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has promised free and fair polls, which "will mark a truly important step to the future of democratic Georgia."
But observers reported isolated instances of procedural violations and noted that Georgia's electoral environment and financing give an unfair advantage to the ruling party, which could potentially affect the vote's outcome.
Turnout was 34.8 percent at 1100 GMT, seven hours after polls opened, the Central Election Commission (CEC) said.
"A total of 46 complaints on procedural violations were filed by political parties and observers to district election commissions," CEC spokeswoman Ketevan Janelidze told AFP.
Politics is still dominated by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili even though neither holds an official position, and their parties are hoping to score landslide victories.
No outright winner?
But opinion polls have the two neck and neck in the race to form the next government, leaving analysts warning the country of 3.7 million could slip into political turmoil if there is no outright winner.
"The most likely outcome is that there will be no outright winner," said political analyst Gia Nodia, adding that a coalition government will be tough due to "lots of hard feelings between parties."
Due to the country's complex election rules the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.
While the two main parties remain firmly committed to Georgia's pro-Western trajectory, for the first time in decades the vote may see one of several small pro-Russian parties make it to the parliament.
"If an anti-Western party secures a bargaining power in forming a coalition, that may have a negative impact on Georgia's bid for membership of the European Union and NATO," Corneli Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, told AFP.
'Climate of hatred'
The campaign has been marred by Wednesday's attempted murder of a UNM lawmaker whose car exploded in central Tbilisi, injuring four passers-by.
The bombing prompted UNM to accuse authorities of "creating a climate of hatred in which opposition politicians are being attacked".
It came after two men were injured when unknown assailants on Sunday fired shots during a campaign rally held by an independent candidate in the central city of Gori.
The poisonous atmosphere around the polarised vote follows years of what the opposition sees as political witch hunts and retribution against Saakashvili and his team.
Saakashvili, a charismatic reformer who took over in the Rose Revolution of 2003, was forced out of the country after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for abuse of power and now works as a regional governor in pro-Western Ukraine.
The crackdown on his allies has prompted concerns among Georgia's Western allies that the country could backslide after its sole orderly transfer of power in 2012.
The ex-president has pledged to return after the elections but the authorities warn they will detain him if he steps foot in the country.
Voting, which started at 0400 GMT and ends at 1600 GMT, is being monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Exit polls from TV stations loyal to the two rival sides are set to be released when voting ends.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 08 Ekim 2016, 16:57