The ruling Georgian Dream party has celebrated the results of four exit polls, all showing it finishing first in parliamentary elections on October 31 that were a test of electoral reforms intended to broaden the range of representation in the legislature.
Though the four exit polls showed significantly different results, they indicated that Georgian Dream got enough votes to cross the 40.5 percent threshold set by law for forming a government on its own.
Official results are expected to be reported as of the early hours of November 1.
All four polls were commissioned by television stations. The Imedi TV exit poll estimated Georgian Dream most favorably, with 55 percent of the vote. It showed the United National Movement (ENM), the main opposition party, with 23 percent.
On the lower end of the estimates, an exit poll commissioned by the opposition Mtavari Arkhi TV showed Georgian Dream getting 41 percent. It showed ENM will receive about 33 percent when the official results are released.
The other two polls, conducted by pollsters hired by Formula 1 and Rustavi 2, showed Georgian Dream with 46 percent and 51 percent, respectively. The pollster for Formula 1 said about 60 percent of people asked refused to participate in the exit poll.
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who formed the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012, personally congratulated the leaders of the party and supporters.
Voters in the South Caucasus nation voted to decide whether the ruling party will run the government on its own for an unprecedented third consecutive term. They also weighed in on the current legislature'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.
Under electoral reforms passed in June, the format for electing Georgia's 150-member unicameral parliament was restructured to give more weight to proportional representation.
Under the new system, 120 seats -- as opposed to the previous 77 -- will be determined based on party lists. Thirty individual candidates -- as opposed to the previous 73 -- will be elected to represent single-mandate districts.
Overall, 66 parties are registered to run for parliamentary seats in the October 31 vote, with 490 candidates running for individual mandates.
The reforms were aimed at ending the consolidation of power by a single political grouping, which to this point has been the Georgian Dream coalition.
“One gets the feeling that Georgian society has finally matured and emerged from the post-Soviet one-party system and the thirst for a leader/chief, who will settle all issues for the people,” according to George Mchedlishvili, an associate professor at the European University in Tbilisi.
Georgian Dream defeated the United National Movement (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 election promises, including electoral reforms.
Georgian Dream also faces a challenge in maintaining its ruling status due to the 40 percent rule.. Anything less than 40 percent will require a coalition to form the government, which would be a first for post-Soviet Georgia.
Parliamentary speaker Archil Talakvadze of Georgian Dream has described the passage of the reforms as testimony to Georgia's commitment to democratic principles, but opposition members have said the ruling party only accepted the changes due to pressure from the public and international partners.
Wedged between the Caspian and Black Seas, Georgia's strategic location makes it the main transit country for energy, transport and trade between Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as a key player in Europe's energy security.
Georgian Dream faces competition from ENM, which nominated former President Mikheil Saakashvili to be its candidate for the post of prime minister.
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 has been campaigning by video link from his self-exile in Ukraine, where he served during his time there as governor of Odesa Oblast from 2015 to 2016.
Three other opposition parties led by former ENM members -- European Georgia, Strategy Agmashenebeli, and the libertarian Girchi -- are also expected to win parliamentary seats, as is the centrist Lelo For Georgia.
A number of other parties are expected to have a chance to gain parliament seats owing to reforms lowering the threshold for entering parliament to 1 percent of the vote, including Russia-friendly parties -- United Georgia, led by former parliamentary speaker and onetime Rose Revolution leader Nino Burjanadze, and the Alliance of Patriots.
The ongoing conflict between fellow South Caucasus countries Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is also expected to have an impact on the vote, amid concerns that Georgia's archrival Russia might increase its influence in the region.