Tbilisi (AFP) - The ruling Georgian Dream party declared victory Saturday in Georgia's parliamentary elections but the opposition has questioned the results of two exit polls, sparking fears of political instability.
One exit poll commissioned by a group of TV channels considered close to the ruling party, gave Georgian Dream 53.8 percent of the vote, with the opposition United National Movement (UNM) in second place at 19.5 percent.
The other exit poll, released by the pro-opposition Rustavi 2 TV, said the two pro-Western parties Georgian Dream and UNM received 39.9 percent and 32.74 percent of the vote, respectively.
Georgian Dream was quick to declare electoral victory based on the exit polls' data although official results are not expected before 0200 GMT on Sunday.
Speaking to a cheering crowd of supporters gathered outside his party headquarters, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili congratulated them on a "huge victory".
But one UNM leader, Giga Bokeria, told AFP he still believed his party may win the elections and that the Georgian Dream "has for sure failed to get enough votes to form the cabinet".
The polls also suggested -- for the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history -- a small pro-Russian party, Alliance of Patriots, had cleared the five-percent threshold required to enter parliament.
The percentages predicted by the exit polls may not necessarily be reflected in the actual distribution of parliamentary seats because almost half will be determined on a first-past-the-post basis rather than by the proportional representation system that was the basis for both exit polls.
Due to the country's complex election rules the final makeup of the 150-seat parliament may only become clear by late November.
Georgian Dream, led behind the scenes by billionaire ex-premier Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the UNM founded by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili, had been neck-and-neck in opinion polls ahead of the election.
- 'Climate of hatred' -
Tensions rose ahead of the vote in the ex-Soviet republic -- which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008
and seeks EU and NATO membership -- after a car bombing and shooting incident at a rally.
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.
"This was a truly free and fair election, which firmly cements Georgia's democracy," Kvirikashvili said after the vote ended, but observers reported instances of procedural violations.
Election monitors and opposition politicians noted that Georgia's electoral environment and financing give an unfair advantage to the ruling party, which could potentially affect the vote's outcome.
Politics is still dominated by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili even though neither holds an official position.
The campaign was marred by Wednesday's attempted murder of a UNM lawmaker whose car exploded in central Tbilisi, injuring four passers-by.
The bombing prompted UNM to accuse authorities of "creating a climate of hatred in which opposition politicians are being attacked".
It came after two men were injured when unknown assailants on Sunday fired shots during a campaign rally held by an independent candidate in the central city of Gori.
Voting, which started at 0400 GMT and ended at 1600 GMT, was being monitored by international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.