Tbilisi (AFP) - The ruling Georgian Dream party won Georgia's parliamentary polls, results showed Sunday, though accusations of vote fraud from the opposition sparked fears of political instability in the Caucasus nation.
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.
With votes from almost all precincts counted, the electoral commission said Georgian Dream was leading main opposition force the United National Movement (UNM) by 48.61 percent to 27.04 percent.
In a proportional ballot, no other party cleared five-percent threshold to enter parliament.
Western observers said polls were competitive, though they noted procedural problems during counting.
After voting closed on Saturday the Georgian Dream was quick to declare victory based on exit polls which gave it a strong lead over the UNM.
"This was a truly free and fair election, which firmly cements Georgia's democracy," Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said after the vote ended.
But the UNM accused the government of attempts to "steal elections" and held a protest rally outside the electoral commission.
"Votes have been stolen from us. We will defend our votes," Nika Melia, chief of UNM's campaign and an MP candidate, told protesters.
Most opposition parties, including Democratic Georgia, the Labour Party and the State for People, also cried foul, accusing the government of "massive vote rigging".
- 'Competitive' elections -
But international observers from the OSCE, NATO, Council of Europe and European Parliament said the elections "were competitive, well-administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected".
"The calm and open campaign atmosphere was, however, impacted by allegations of unlawful campaigning and some incidents of violence," the monitors said in a joint statement.
The European Union said in a statement: "We look forward to working with the democratically elected new parliament and government to deepen our political and economic relations."
Ahead of the vote, 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.
Georgian Dream, led behind the scenes by billionaire ex-premier Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the UNM founded by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili, had previously been neck-and-neck in opinion polls.
Politics is still dominated by Saakashvili and Ivanishvili, even though neither holds an official position.
The voting percentages that have so far been released are for a proportional ballot that will decide 77 of the 150 seats in the legislature.
The figures may not necessarily be reflected in parliamentary seats because almost half will be determined on a first-past-the-post basis rather than by the proportional representation system.
Due to Georgia's complex election rules the final makeup of parliament may only become clear by late November, after second round runoffs in most of the single-mandate constituencies.
- 'Climate of hatred' -
Tensions rose ahead of the vote in the ex-Soviet republic -- which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008 and is seeking EU and NATO membership -- after a car bombing and a shooting incident at a rally.
Last Wednesday a UNM lawmaker suffered a murder attempt when his car exploded in central Tbilisi, injuring four passers-by.
The bombing prompted the 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.
The poisonous atmosphere around the vote followed years of what the opposition sees as political witch-hunts 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 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 partners that the country could backslide after its sole orderly transfer of power in 2012.
The ex-president has pledged to return after the elections but the authorities warn they will detain him if he steps foot in Georgia.