TBILISI An opposition coalition led by a billionaire claimed victory in a parliamentary election in Georgia on Monday but President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party could yet cling to power in the former Soviet republic.
Thousands of supporters of the Georgian Dream coalition celebrated in the streets of the capital Tbilisi, sounding car horns and carrying blue party banners and red-on-white national flags over their heads.
"I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new (150 seat) parliament," the coalition's leader, wealthy tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, told a cheering crowd. "I have achieved what I have long been striving for."
But a tense stand-off loomed over the results of the poll, which under Georgia's electoral system allocates seats according to both party lists and constituency victories.
Exit polls showed Ivanishvili's coalition had won more votes in balloting by party list to fill 77 of the parliament seats, while Saakashvili's party claimed it won most of the individual races to fill the other 73 seats.
The first official results were due in the early hours of Tuesday.
Any signs of instability in the Caucasus country of 4.5 million would worry the West because of its role as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and its pivotal location between Russia, Iran, Turkey and central Asia.
Saakashvili says the Georgian Dream coalition would move Georgia away from the West and back into Moscow's orbit, and has suggested Ivanishvili is doing the bidding of the Kremlin after making his money in Russia.
An exit poll shown by private pro-government channels Imedi and Rustavi-2 put Georgian Dream on 50 percent of ballots in party-list voting, to 41 percent for Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM).
A separate exit poll reported by the Georgian Public Broadcaster had the six-party coalition and the ruling party level on 33 percent. Two polls cited by pro-opposition channels put Georgian Dream far ahead.
But the UNM said it believed it had won at least 53 of the 73 seats allotted in elections in individual constituencies.
"This means that the United National Movement will have a majority in the new parliament," spokeswoman Chiora Taktakishvili said in televised comments.
Ivanishvili, a former reclusive who entered politics only a year ago, told Reuters he was confident Georgian Dream candidates won at least 50 of the individual races.
"A very interesting precedent has been set in which the leadership has been replaced through elections," he said.
GEORGIAN DREAM SUPPORTERS CELEBRATE
Georgian Dream's strong showing was an indictment on Saakashvili, who swept to the presidency in the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 but led Georgia into a disastrous five-day war with Russia over two breakaway regions in 2008.
Saakashvili cautioned that the results were not yet in, and the U.S. ambassador earlier on Monday urged Georgians to "stay calm" until votes were counted and any challenges addressed.
Saakashvili must step down after a presidential election next year, when reforms weakening the head of state and giving more power to parliament and prime minister are to take effect.
If his party retains control of parliament, it may give him a way to keep calling the shots. If not, Ivanishvili could become premier and Georgia's dominant politician.
"Besides being a contest for parliament, it is also a shadow leadership election," said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
In a televised address after polls closed, Saakashvili, 44, said it appeared Georgian Dream had prevailed in the party-list voting but his party had come out ahead in the individual races.
When parliament convenes, ruling party and opposition deputies should "take their seats and start working in a joint democratic process", he said. "We are all Georgian citizens, we should stand together and work together."
But the exit polls emboldened Georgian Dream supporters and could lead to increased tensions if their strong showing is not matched by results in the individual districts - an outcome that could stoke suspicions of rigging.
Tension was already high after video footage of torture, beatings and sexual assault of prison inmates led to street protests after it was aired on two television channels opposed to Saakashvili about two weeks before the election.
The footage undermined Saakashvili's image as a reformer who had imposed the rule of law and rooted out corruption.
"I'm voting against violence and abuse. How can I do otherwise after what we have all seen on TV?" Natela Zhorzholiani, 68, said as she voted in Tbilisi.
Ivanishvili has won votes by promising to tackle poverty and corruption, blaming these problems on Saakashvili, although not everyone trusts him to do better than the current president and Saakashvili portrays him as open to Russian manipulation.
"I voted for peace and stability," Georgy Ugrekhelidze, 76. "I want this government to carry out what it has started."
Opponents accuse Saakashvili of monopolizing power, curtailing democracy and suppressing dissent. He owes his rise to power to street protests over claims of election fraud, but has damaged his image by cracking down on opponents.
Police used teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse protesters in Tbilisi in November 2007. Security forces again cracked down on protesters in 2010 after opponents occupied a central square.