TBILISI (Reuters) - The ruling party in Georgia decisively won parliamentary elections, firming its grip on power in the former Soviet nation, near-complete results showed on Sunday.
With 99.41 percent of the votes in, data from the Central Election Commission gave the ruling Georgian Dream party 48.61 percent of the vote and the opposition United National Movement (UNM) 27.04 percent.
A U.S. ally traditionally buffeted between Russia and the West, Georgia hopes to join the European Union and NATO one day even though that is something that Russia, its former colonial master, strongly opposes.
With political stability still fragile — the first peaceful transfer of power since the 1991 Soviet collapse only took place four years ago - the authorities were keen the election be widely seen as free and fair to avoid a return to the days when politicians tried to seize power by force.
Georgia is criss-crossed by strategically important oil and gas pipelines and a fifth of its territory remains under the control of pro-Russian separatists following a short war with Russia in 2008.
Georgian Dream, which is pro-Western but also favors closer ties with Russia, declared victory shortly after polls closed on Saturday.
“I congratulate you with a big victory Georgia!” Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili told jubilant supporters gathered outside the party’s headquarters in Tbilisi, the capital.
“According to all preliminary results, Georgian Dream is leading with a big advantage,” he said, as dozens of party members waved blue party flags and balloons.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said on Sunday the election had been competitive and that fundamental freedoms had been generally respected.
With some parties threatening to organize street protests if they do not get into parliament, the government is likely to use the OSCE’s assessment to bolster its assertion that the vote was largely fair despite some problems.
The pre-election atmosphere was marred by a string of violent incidents blamed by Georgian politicians on everyone from Moscow to shadowy forces bent on destabilizing the vote.
In one of them, a group of unidentified attackers threw stones and smashed windows at two polling stations in the village of Jikhashkari in western Georgia on Saturday night.
They also damaged the ballot box and attacked international and local observers on the spot, the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) said in a statement.
Before that, on Tuesday, a car bomb targeted an opposition deputy in Tbilisi. Givi Targamadze survived, but five passers-by were injured.
In a separate attack, two men were shot and wounded last Sunday at an election rally in the town of Gori, while on voting day itself disturbances broke out in the village of Kizilajlo in south-east Georgia.
Georgian Dream, which came to power in 2012, is funded by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, while the opposition UNM was founded by former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
“I’m happy that Georgian Dream has won. I believe that they will do more for people,” said Murman Sanikidze, a 37-year-old Tbilisi resident.
Although the economy is emerging from a deep slowdown, many in this nation of 3.7 million people are unhappy with their living standards, which have been hit by a decline in exports and remittances.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, helped end UNM’s nine-year rule in 2012.
Under Georgian Dream, dozens of ex-officials have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power, though some Western countries have accused the government of applying justice selectively.
Saakashvili, now a regional politician in Ukraine, is wanted at home on several charges, including corruption. He says the charges are politically motivated.
Writing by Margarita Antidze and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Clelia Oziel and David Evans