TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Voters in Georgia cast ballots Saturday in a parliamentary election hotly contested between the governing party, founded by a billionaire, and an alliance around the country's ex-president who's in self-imposed exile in Ukraine — another former Soviet republic on the Black Sea.
The Georgian Dream party, created by Bidzina Ivanishvili who made his fortune in Russia, has held a strong majority in the 150-seat parliament for eight years, but its popularity has dwindled steadily amid the country's economic problems.
The Georgian economy has been badly bruised by the COVID-!19 pandemic and is expected to shrink by 5% this year, while the currency is falling sharply.
Georgian Dream now faces a renewed challenge from an opposition coalition of the Strength is in Unity party and former president Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement. The coalition has fielded Saakashvili as its candidate for the prime minister's job.
Georgian Dream has nominated current Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia to stay on the job.
Speaking after casting his ballot, Ivanishvili voiced confidence that his party would retain a strong majority and wouldn't need to form a coalition.
“We will come to power with an absolute majority, maybe not an absolute but a solid majority," Ivanishvili said, adding that he expects Georgian Dream to win about 100 seats. “We exclude (the possibility) of the coalition.”
United National Movement's leader Grigol Vashadze said he's "absolutely determined to change the government and return Georgia to a normal way of democratic development.”
Both Georgian Dream and United National Movement are pro-Western, with goals of establishing better relations and possible eventual membership of NATO and the European Union.
During Saakashvili’s rule, Russia and Georgia fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions. The issue of the regions’ status has remained a key irritant, but ties between Moscow and Tbilisi have improved following Saakashvili’s departure.
The opposition has accused Georgian Dream of pursuing pro-Russian policies while claiming to be Western-oriented.
“The Russian influence is getting larger and larger,” said UNM member Khatia Dekanoidze. “People are getting poorer, the economic situation is absolutely horrible and ... people have already decided it is time for real change."
Saakashvili, who served as president in 2004-2013, addressed his supporters who rallied in Tbilisi on Thursday via a video link from Ukraine where he has been given an official job, vowing to drive Georgian Dream from power.
Georgian parliament speaker Archil Talakvadze said the vote should help stabilize the economy and support efforts to integrate into the West.
“This is Georgia’s new opportunity to attract more investments and Georgia’s new opportunity actually to complete (its) path toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration,” Talakvadze told The Associated Press.
It's unclear whether any of the two rival political forces will win enough votes to form a government. According to constitutional amendments approved earlier this year, to do that they would need to secure more than 40.54% of the vote.