- Associated Press - Monday, October 1, 2012

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and the opposition both claimed victory Monday in a parliamentary election that is crucial to determining the future direction of this former Soviet republic.

The governing party was in a heated race against an opposition coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has posed the most serious challenge to the pro-Western president since he came to power almost nine years ago.

No results have been released yet in Monday’s vote. Two exit polls conducted by Edison Research and Gfk gave the edge to the opposition, but the exit polls were done four hours before the voting stations closed and registered only the vote based on party lists, which is used to elect 77 of parliament’s 150 members.

The remaining 73 members are directly elected by majority vote in their constituencies, where the president’s United National Movement is considered to have a strong advantage.

Mr. Saakashvili, speaking on television shortly after the polls closed, said the opposition coalition Georgian Dream had indeed won the party vote, largely on the strength of its support in the capital, Tbilisi. Still, he said his party was far ahead in the direct elections and would retain its majority in parliament.

Georgian Dream, however, released a statement saying that its own exit polls showed it would win the party vote by 63 percent and cited Mr. Ivanishvili saying he was “prepared to ensure a parliamentary majority.”

The Central Election Commission said the first preliminary results were expected at 3 a.m. Tuesday (7 p.m. EDT Monday).

Emotions were running high, but both sides have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.

The U.S. ambassador joined calls for a peaceful election.

“I encourage the public to remain calm, have faith and be patient while all the results are counted and any challenges are properly evaluated,” Ambassador Richard Norland said.

Under Mr. Saakashvili, the former Soviet republic has aligned itself with the United States while striving to join the European Union and NATO.

Mr. Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, has said he would pursue these strategic goals while also seeking to restore the ties with Moscow that were severed when the two neighboring countries fought a brief war in 2008.

Mr. Saakashvili has accused Mr. Ivanishvili of serving Kremlin interests and intending to put Georgia back under Russian domination, which the opposition leader has denied.

After casting his vote on Monday, Mr. Saakashvili said the election was important not only for Georgia, a nation of 4.5 million on the Black Sea, but for the region.

“A lot of things are being decided right now in our country … for the future not only of this nation, but for what happens to the European dream in this part of the world, what happens to the idea of democracy in this part of the world, what happens to the idea of reforms in this part of the world.” he said, his Dutch wife and their young son standing behind him.

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