Georgia ruling party cruising to landslide election win

Tbilisi (AFP) - Georgia voted in the second round of contested parliamentary polls Sunday, with the ruling Georgian Dream poised for a landslide victory, prompting opposition parties to cry foul.

Led from behind the scenes by billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream is running against the main opposition United National Movement (UNM), founded by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Sunday's vote, which works on a first-past-the-post basis, will decide the fate of a third of the mandates in the 150-seat legislature.

In the first round, which was held on October 8, Georgian Dream won 48.68 percent of the vote in a proportional ballot, while UNM came second with 27.11 percent.

For the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history, the first round also saw a small anti-Western party, the Alliance of Patriots, clearing the five-percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

According to the first round result, Georgian Dream will take 67 seats, UNM 27 seats, and Alliance of Patriots six seats in the new parliament.

With the remaining 50 seats up for grabs in Sunday's runoff, Georgian Dream was expected to win almost all of them.

Should the party win a total of at least 113 seats, as expected, it would be able to form a new cabinet and pass constitutional amendments.

Turnout was 37.5 percent when polls closed at 1600 GMT, the Central Election Commission said.

Preliminary results are expected to be released by Monday morning.

Georgia's Western allies are watching closely to see if the strategic nation -- praised as a rare example of democracy in the former Soviet region -- can cement gains after its first transfer of power at the ballot box four years ago.

- Opposition cries foul -

After both the first round ballot and Sunday's runoffs, opposition parties cried foul, accusing the government of massive vote rigging -- a claim flatly rejected by the authorities.

"Georgians were denied their right to make free electoral choice," one of the UNM leaders, Giorgi Baramidze, told AFP.

"The scale of electoral violations, pressure on voters and opposition activists, vote buying, is appalling."

But the Central Election Commission said the ballot was "held in a calm atmosphere and voters were able to express their will freely."

The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, a local watchdog which deployed some 700 observers at polling stations, said it has registered procedural violations such as multiple voting and problems with marking ballot papers.

The vote was also monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Parliament and NATO.

The United States-based National Democratic Institute has said that the registered violations could -- if unaddressed -- "detract from the credibility of future elections as well as the legitimacy of the mandate of the next parliament and government."

- Backsliding concerns -

Politics is still dominated by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili even though neither holds an official position.

Ahead of the vote, tensions rose in the ex-Soviet republic -- which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 and seeks EU and NATO membership -- after several violent incidents targeting opposition candidates.

The poisonous atmosphere around the polarised vote follows years of what the opposition sees as political witchhunts and retribution against Saakashvili and his team.

Saakashvili, a charismatic reformer who took over in the Rose Revolution of 2003, was forced out of the country in 2013 after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for abuse of power.

He now works as a regional governor in pro-Western Ukraine.

The crackdown on his allies has prompted concerns among Georgia's Western allies that the country could backslide after its sole orderly transfer of power in 2012.