By LYNN BERRY and MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI, Associated Press
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Early returns and exit polls in a heated parliamentary election show that Georgian voters have turned against President Mikhail Saakashvili and the party that has been in power for almost nine years.
Saakashvili acknowledged that the popular vote on Monday went to the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose supporters in the capital celebrated throughout the night.
But the president insisted that his party would retain its majority in parliament since nearly half of the seats are chosen in separate direct elections.
The outcome will determine the future of Saakashvili's pro-Western government because of a constitutional reform that goes into effect next year giving the parliament greater powers at the expense of the presidency.
If Saakashvili's party loses, it would be the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history that a government has been changed not through revolution but at the ballot box.
Emotions were running high, and many feared that opposition supporters could turn angry if their victory proved short-lived. Both sides, however, are under pressure to prove their commitment to democracy and have promised to respect the results if the election receives the approval of international observers.
The Central Election Commission said a hacker attack on its website had delayed the release of the results. With 10 percent of precincts counted early Tuesday, Georgian Dream was leading in the popular vote for party list with 57 percent to 38 percent for Saakashvili's United National Movement.
An exit poll conducted by Edison Research gave a clear edge to the opposition, while a second by GfK had them running even but with 30 percent of people surveyed refusing to say how they voted. These polls, however, only registered the vote based on party lists, which is used to elect 77 of parliament's 150 members.
The remaining 73 members are directly elected by majority vote in their constituencies, where the president's party is considered to have the advantage in this mountainous nation of 4.5 million people on the Black Sea.
Speaking on television shortly after the polls closed, Saakashvili agreed that the opposition had won the party list vote, largely on the strength of its support in Tbilisi, the capital. Still, he insisted his party was far ahead in the direct elections in individual districts and would retain its majority in parliament.
He called on both sides to work together and leave behind a campaign that was "tense, emotional and unfortunately often dirty."
Georgian Dream, however, said its exit poll showed it would win a majority of the parliament seats.
Tbilisi resounded late into the night with car horns and cheering as Georgian Dream supporters celebrated. Thousands gathered on Freedom Square, where they opened bottles of wine, sang songs and hugged one another. Cars drove through the city with young men hanging out of the windows and sunroofs, waving the party's blue flags.
Under Saakashvili, the former Soviet republic has aligned itself with the United States, while striving to join the European Union and NATO.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has said he would pursue these strategic goals while also seeking to restore the ties with Moscow that were severed when the two neighboring countries fought a brief war in 2008 over two breakaway Georgian provinces.
Saakashvili has accused Ivanishvili of serving Kremlin interests and intending to put Georgia back under Russian domination, which the opposition leader has denied.
Saakashvili's campaign was hit hard by the release two weeks ago of shocking videos showing prisoners in a Tbilisi jail being beaten and sodomized. The government moved quickly to stem the anger, replacing Cabinet ministers blamed for the abuse and arresting prison staff, but many saw the videos as illustrating the excesses of his government.
The U.S. ambassador joined in the calls for a peaceful election.
"I encourage the public to remain calm, have faith and be patient while all the results are counted and any challenges are properly evaluated," Ambassador Richard Norland said.