Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has conceded that his ruling United National Movement (ENM) party has lost the October 1 parliamentary elections and is going into opposition.
"After summing up the preliminary results, it is clear that the Georgian Dream coalition has the lead," Saakashvili said in a televised address. "This means that the parliamentary majority should form the new government, and as president, according to the constitution, I will help this process and help parliament begin its work, elect its speaker, and form the new government."
With nearly one-quarter of ballots counted, Georgia's Central Election Commission said on October 2 that Georgian Dream, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, was leading both in the vote for party lists and in direct voting districts.
Saakashvili said he believed Ivanishvili's views were "fundamentally unacceptable" but that he would respect the voters' choice.
"There are deep differences between us," he said. "We believe that [the coalition's] views are extremely erroneous. But democracy works so that decisions are made by a majority of the Georgian people. And we, of course, respect that strongly."
The Central Election Commission said that with some 25 percent of ballots counted, the Georgian Dream coalition had 53 percent of the vote for party lists.
Seventy-seven of the 150 deputies in parliament are elected based on party lists; the remaining 73 lawmakers are directly elected in their constituencies.
The election commission said that with ballots from about two-thirds of direct voting districts counted, Georgian Dream was also leading in the vote.
In its assessment of the vote, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Georgia had taken an "important step in consolidating conduct of democratic elections, but some key issues remain."
The OSCE said that, despite "a very polarized campaign," Georgians "have freely expressed their will at the ballot box.”
Saakashvili came to power in the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 and his presidential mandate ends in 2013. He has steered Georgia away from Russia and toward the West.
Saakashvili had said Ivanishvili would move Georgia away from the West and bring it back into Moscow's orbit.
Ivanishvili denied this. The billionaire said he would pursue Georgia's strategic goals of joining NATO and the European Union, as well as normalizing relations with Russia.
Those ties were damaged in 2008 when the two countries fought a brief war over two Georgian breakaway regions.
PHOTO GALLERY: Jubilant Georgian opposition supporters
Ivanishvili said on October 1 that he was confident the election result would change the country's government.
"The Georgian people have shown their great culture, their great wisdom, and everything happened exactly as these people and this country needed," he said. "I think an interesting precedent happened in Georgian history today: For the first time in our long history, we have changed our government through elections."
A constitutional reform that goes into effect next year would give parliament and the prime minister greater powers at the expense of the presidency.
Ivanishvili has said he wants to obtain Georgian citizenship -- of which he was stripped last year -- and become prime minister.
The opposition complained of harassment in the lead-up to the vote.
Amnesty International condemned human rights abuses during election campaigning.
“While the Georgian Dream coalition has by and large been able to get its message across to Georgian voters, many of its supporters have been fined, fired, harassed, or detained for expressing their political views,” said Natalia Nozadze, Amnesty International’s expert on Georgia.
The run-up to the October 1 vote had been colored by mass protests against police brutality and torture
in Georgia's prison system.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, dpa, and AFP