Public anger over a prison abuse scandal played into a parliamentary election in Georgia on Monday which could determine if the former Soviet republic keeps its close relationship with the West or moves back to Russia’s orbit.
The election provides President Mikheil Saakashvili with the biggest test of his decade in power.
Mr. Saakashvili, who swept to the presidency after the Rose Revolution of 2003, says his main challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili will cultivate closer ties to Russia – with which Georgia fought a brief but disastrous war five years ago.
Mr. Ivanishvili, a billionaire tycoon with a fortune nearly half the size of Georgia’s economy, hopes the prison scandal will convince undecided voters that Mr. Saakashvili has become an undemocratic leader who tramples on rights and freedoms.
Two exit polls gave the edge to the opposition coalition in Monday's parliamentary election, but they may say little about the final result and the governing party claimed it would retain its majority.
The polls conducted by Edison Research and Gfk were only as of 4 p.m., four hours before the voting stations closed.
They also registered only the vote based on party lists, used to elect 77 of parliament's 150 members.
The remaining 73 members are directly elected by majority vote in their constituencies, where Mr. Saakashvili's party is considered to have a strong advantage.
A spokeswoman for his party, Chiora Taktakishvili, said the exit poll data they have seen shows the two sides fairly even in the party vote but the president's United National Movement way ahead in the majority vote and retaining a firm majority in parliament.
The West is watching the election closely. It wants a stable Georgia 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.
Before the vote, video of torture, beatings and sexual assault of prison inmates led to street protests after it was aired on two television channels opposed to Mr. Saakashvili.
The furore undermined Mr. 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 outside a polling station at a school in the capital, Tbilisi.
She said she was voting for the six-party Georgian Dream movement led by Mr. Ivanishvili, who has reshaped the political landscape by uniting the usually fractious opposition since entering politics less than a year ago.
Mr. Saakashvili, 44, must step down after a presidential election next year, when reforms weakening the head of state and giving more power to parliament and the prime minister are to take affect.
If his United National Movement retains dominance of parliament, it may give him a way to remain in charge of the country of 4.5 million, an important gas and oil transit route to the West. If not, Mr. 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.
Georgian Dream said Monday’s voting was marred by incidents of electoral violations and violence. It alleged that an assailant attacked a coalition member on a precinct electoral commission in Tbilisi with a baseball bat, breaking her leg.
The Central Election Commission said the chairman of a polling station in the town of Rustavi was wounded in a separate attack but that overall voting was taking place in “a calm environment”.
If Georgian Dream wins a majority in parliament, it would mark the first transfer of power from one party to another by means of a vote in Georgia since the Soviet breakup.
“We will replace the government through an election today for the first time.” Mr. Ivanishvili said.
The 56-year-old has a spectacular glass and metal home overlooking Tbilisi where he displays art works by Damien Hirst and Roy Lichtenstein, but until recently he was so reclusive that few people knew what he looked like.
Mr. Saakashvili, who cast his ballot with his Dutch wife and their young son, suggested his party was Georgia’s best chance for democracy and reforms.
Without referring directly to Moscow, he hinted the opposition would bring Georgia back to its Russian-dominated past.
“The fate of our country’s statehood is being decided today,” Mr. Saakashvili said.
The election would affect “not only this nation but what happens to the European dream,” he said.
Mr. Saakashvili’s supporters accuse Mr. Ivanishvili, who made much of his money in Russia, of being a Kremlin stooge.
Mr. Ivanishvili denies that but says he would be better at handling ties with Moscow than Mr. Saakashvili, whose rule has seen the severing of diplomatic relations over the 2008 war and Russian bans on Georgian wine and mineral water.
During the war, Russia strengthened its control of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which make up about one-fifth of the Caucasus nation’s territory.
A survey by the U.S. National Democratic Institute in August gave UNM 37 per cent support against 12 per cent for Georgian Dream but showed 43 per cent of respondents could vote either way. There have been no major polls since the abuse scandal.
Many Georgians just want political and economic calm. The economy, hit by the 2008 war and the global financial crisis, has been growing again since 2010 but inflation is likely to hit 6-7 per cent this year.
“I voted for peace and stability,” Georgy Ugrekhelidze, 76. “I want this government to carry out what it has started.”