Georgians voted for a new parliament on Saturday in an election seen as a test of credibility for the ruling party and a way to form a more diverse parliament.
Voting, which got underway at 0400 GMT, was brisk, with lines forming outside several polling stations in Tbilisi.
A fifth of Georgian territory remains under the control of pro-Russian separatists following a short war with Russia in 2008.
The country’s economy was hit by the coronavirus’s spread and is now forecast by the government to contract by 4%.
A majority of polls suggest the ruling Georgian Dream party – founded and funded by the country’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili – is leading. Still, it is not clear whether it will get more than 40% of the votes needed to form a single-party government.
The ruling party leaders said they were confident of victory and promised to hold a free and fair election.
“We have information that a turnout is high, our supporters are very active, and we expect to receive over one million votes,” Irakli Kobakhidze, the ruling party executive secretary, told reporters.
Reuters correspondents saw long queues outside polling stations in central Tbilisi with voters wearing protective masks due to the coronavirus concerns.
“No coronavirus will prevent me from making my choice; I’m ready to stand here for hours as I want changes in our country … this government should go,” Petre Lomsadze, a 31-year-old resident of Tbilisi, said.
Many other Georgians accuse the government of mishandling the economy, selective justice, weak foreign policy, and falling short of democratic standards, including brutal dispersal of protests.
The opposition says that the upcoming poll’s outcome should not set a precedent of the ruling party being elected for a third consecutive term.
“Opposition will win, and it will be a decisive victory; oligarchic governance should be over,” said Tina Bokuchava, a lawmaker from the opposition United National Movement (UNM), referring to Ivanishvili.
Critics accuse Ivanishvili, who does not occupy any government posts and is only Georgian Dream party head, of governing the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people behind the scenes.
More than 30 opposition parties, led by the UNM, the largest and strongest opposition force, on Friday vowed not to form a coalition government with the ruling party after the election.
Polls suggest that the distribution of 30 majoritarian seats in the 150-seat parliament may play a decisive role and indicate that more diverse voices will be presented in the next parliament. Those seats are filled through voting for individual candidates in electoral districts instead of party lists used for the remaining 120 seats.
Both the government and the opposition would like to see Georgia join the European Union and NATO, but Moscow would strongly resist such a move. Georgian Dream also favors stronger ties with Russia.
Polls will close at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT). The election is monitored by a local and limited number of international observers due to pandemic concerns.
Four separate exit polls commissioned by private television channels will be announced right after polls close. At the same time, first preliminary results are expected to be announced by the Central Election Commission early on Sunday.