Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream has claimed victory in parliamentary elections that pitted it against a more united opposition hoping to end the party's eight-year run.
But the largest opposition party has rejected the results of the October 31 voting and called for a protest in central Tbilisi, while international observers warned that while the process was "competitive" it was "far from perfect."
Waving Georgian flags, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building on Tbilisi's main thoroughfare on November 1 demanding fresh elections.
The international observer mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded on November 1 that the elections in the Caucasus country of around 3.7 million people were "competitive" and said that "overall, fundamental freedoms were respected."
But, in preliminary findings presented at a midday press conference, the OSCE cited factors that "reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process."
Speaking in Tbilisi, the observers cited a "visibly partisan" media environment, "pervasive allegations of pressure on voters," and a "blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state" as particularly troublesome.
With all votes counted on November 1, the Central Election Commission reported Georgian Dream had 48.15 percent and the bloc of the main opposition party, the United National Movement (ENM), had 27.14 percent.
The opposition European Georgia, led by a number of former ENM members, was third with 3.78 percent.
Five other parties appeared well-placed to top the newly reduced 1 percent threshold to reach parliament, according to preliminary results, including the Lelo party at 3.15 percent; the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots at 3.14 percent; the Strategy Aghmashenebeli at 3.15 percent; Girchi at 2.89 percent; and the Citizens grouping at 1.33 percent.
Turnout was said to have been 56 percent.
President Salome Zurabishvili praised what she said were elections with "high voter turnout and without severe violations."
"Georgia has managed and conducted peaceful, fair, secure, democratic elections -- it can be said, European elections," Zurabishvili, whose candidacy in 2018 was supported by Georgian Dream, said in a November 1 statement on her official website.
The elections were the first under a reformed electoral system passed in June giving more weight to proportional representation. Of 150 seats in parliament, 120 seats are determined based on party lists and 30 seats through single-mandate districts.
The Central Election Commission's website showed Georgian Dream dominating the majoritarian races, where candidates in the single-mandate districts need more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
The results translate into 75 seats for Georgian Dream in parliament, one seat short of a majority. However, runoff elections will be held in 15 districts, all but ensuring the ruling party will secure a majority in parliament.
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who formed the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012, personally congratulated the leaders of the party and its supporters after exit polls showed the party leading.
Georgian Dream has been in a fractious rivalry with ENM, which nominated exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili to be its candidate for prime minister.
Saakashvili was quoted as saying after polls closed that Georgian Dream officials were "massively falsifying election results." He called for a "mass mobilization to defend the votes."
Nika Melia, one of the ENM's leaders, told reporters after consulting with other opposition leaders: "It was not an election, it was a war."
According to another opposition leader, Shalva Natelashvili, the election results are illegitimate and "the government has been usurped."
The OSCE observers noted the presence of "party coordinators" outside polling stations on election day that could have intimidated some voters.
They encouraged the new parliament and other officials to continue to improve Georgia's electoral processes.
Osman Askin Bak, the Turkish head of the NATO PA delegation that was part of the OSCE mission, said it was a "competitive election" within a "sound electoral framework" in which "most procedures were followed."
"It was, however, far from perfect," he added.
Bak noted the absence of voting in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia due to "Russia's illegal occupation."
Tiny Kox, head of the PACE delegation to the elections, said that "these have been free elections, and that is not nothing." But he noted high party spending without limits that "negatively affects the fairness of your elections."
So much spent in such a relatively poor country "creates a danger" and sends "the wrong signals" to the public, Kox said.
Transparency International Georgia, an NGO that had deployed around 600 local observers, said the voting was "a step back compared with the 2016 parliamentary elections."
It cited vote-rigging including "an individual who voted on at least 10 occasions" in one precinct, bribery for votes, physical confrontations, obstruction of observers, and other irregularities.
The group recommended that police investigate possible crimes and suggested election officials take specific measures to bolster public confidence, including more adequately supplying polling stations and more digitized voting procedures.
There were numerous reports of mostly minor violations throughout election day, many of them related to compliance with anti-pandemic measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Tamar Zhvania, the chairperson of the Central Election Commission, said the election was conducted in a calm environment with some exceptions and that voters exercised their constitutional right.
The elections are considered a test of electoral reforms intended to broaden the range of representation in the legislature and end the consolidation of power by a single political grouping.
The election campaign was centered on Georgian Dream’s handling of a struggling economy, the coronavirus outbreak, and foreign relations.
Many Georgians accuse the government of mishandling the economy, selective justice, weak foreign policy, and falling short of democratic standards, including the brutal dispersal of protests.
Georgian Dream defeated the ENM in the 2012 parliamentary elections and has been the ruling party ever since.
However, the party lost its constitutional majority in 2019 after some lawmakers defected amid protests alleging it had failed to follow through on electoral promises, including electoral reforms.
Wedged between the Caspian and Black seas, Georgia's strategic location makes it a transit point for energy and trade between Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as a key player in Europe's energy security.
Saakashvili rode the wave of the pro-Western Rose Revolution to the presidency in 2004 and served two terms in office marked by anti-government demonstrations as well as a failed war against Russia over the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.
Following Georgian Dream's parliamentary victory in 2012 and the subsequent arrest of some former high-ranking members of his cabinet on charges of abuse of power, Saakashvili left the country in 2013.
A Georgian court in January 2018 convicted the former president of hiding evidence in the killing of a banker and was sentenced to three years in prison. In June of that year he was also convicted of abuse of power and sentenced in absentia to six years in prison.
The 52-year-old Saakashvili is in exile in Ukraine, where he served during his time there as governor of the Odesa region in 2015-16.