Georgia’s ruling party won the largest share of votes in the country’s parliamentary election on Saturday according to preliminary results dismissed by the opposition, which called on its supporters to take to the streets in protest.

Georgian Dream, run by Bidzina Ivanishvili — a Russian-made billionaire who has no formal government role — appeared to be on course for a third consecutive term in office. The electoral commission said the party had won 49 per cent of the vote after counting 66 per cent of ballots. But it was unclear whether that would give it a majority of parliamentary seats.

The ruling party’s popularity has waned over the past year because of its heavy-handed response to street demonstrations and the damage done to the economy by the coronavirus pandemic.

Saturday’s poll is seen as a critical test of Georgia’s reputation as a true democracy in a post-Soviet neighbourhood dominated by autocrats and political corruption.

Critics say Mr Ivanishvili, who is Georgia’s richest man, pulls the strings of power from his sprawling mansion complex perched on a hill overlooking the country’s capital, Tbilisi.

Mr Ivanishvili’s connections with Russia and the perception that he and his party are keen on closer ties with Moscow have been seized on by opposition campaigners in the former Soviet state, which has pre-membership agreements with both the EU and Nato.

United National Movement (UNM), the largest opposition party, which won 26 per cent of the vote according to provisional results, said the elections were “illegitimate” and called on supporters to join protests in Tbilisi on Sunday.

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Georgian businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, of the Georgian Dream party, speaks after voting in Tbilisi on Saturday © Georgian Dream Party/AP

UNM’s candidate for prime minister is Mikheil Saakashvili, the pugnacious former president who fled Georgia in 2013 and now advises the government of Ukraine.

The opposition’s response to the election results could spark prolonged unrest and political instability in the nation of 3.7m, which since 2004 has sought to present itself as a staunchly pro-western linchpin in the Caucasus, wedged between Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Georgia has a fraught relationship with Moscow. It lost roughly one-fifth of its territory to pro-Russian separatists following a 2008 war with Russia, which has also been accused of recent cyber attacks on its neighbour.

Georgian Dream has pursued a policy of normalisation with Moscow, including a warming of trade ties and encouragement of Russian tourists, but denies that it is soft on the Kremlin.

Saturday’s election was the first since an overhaul of the voting system in response to a series of mass street protests against the government last year. The new system, which was agreed in June, reduces the number of single-member constituencies in favour of more seats elected by proportional representation.

That new calculation may significantly alter the number of seats awarded to each party, and could mean a coalition government is required.

“No matter who forms a coalition, there are unlikely to be major changes to policy,” said Zachary Witlin, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “More importantly, government instability will be a greater risk for the next four years. It will be a constant question whether a government is able to work coherently and consistently.” 

Via Financial Times