Georgians are voting in parliamentary elections in the first test of electoral reforms intended to provide a broader range of political representation in the legislature.
Voters in the South Caucasus nation are deciding whether a ruling party will run the government on its own for an unprecedented third-consecutive time. They are also weighing in on the current legislature's handling of a struggling economy, the coronavirus outbreak, and foreign relations.
A majority of polls suggest that the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, formed by the country's richest man, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, in 2012, is leading.
But it is unclear if the coalition will be able to get more than the 40 percent of votes needed to rule the government on its own.
The ruling party leaders said they were confident of victory and promised to hold a free and fair election.
'We have information that turnout is high; our supporters are very active and we expect to receive over one million votes,' Irakli Kobakhidze, the ruling party's executive secretary, told reporters on October 31.
There were long lines outside polling stations in the center of the capital, Tbilisi, with voters wearing protective masks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Georgians line up to vote in Tbilisi October 31.
Many Georgians accuse the government of mishandling the economy, selective justice, weak foreign policy, and falling short of democratic standards, including the brutal dispersal of protests.
'The 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 (ENM), referring to Ivanishvili.
Transparency International Georgia said voting was taking place in a "mostly calm environment," although it had recorded some 100 minor violations by 12 p.m. local time.
Another watchdog, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, said violations of ballot secrecy were a major issue.
The Central Elections Committee said 19.41 percent of eligible voters, or 681,583 people, had cast their ballots by noon, slightly lower than in the 2016 vote.
Under electoral reforms passed in June, the format for electing Georgia's 150-member unicameral parliament was restructured to give more weight to proportional representation.
Under the new system, 120 seats -- as opposed to the previous 77 -- will be determined based on party lists. Thirty individual candidates -- as opposed to the previous 73 -- will be elected to represent single-mandate districts.
Overall, 66 parties are registered to run for parliamentary seats in the October 31 vote, with 490 candidates running for individual mandates.
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The reforms were aimed at ending the consolidation of power by a single political grouping, which to this point has been the Georgian Dream coalition.
"One gets the feeling that Georgian society has finally matured and emerged from the post-Soviet one-party system and the thirst for a leader/chief, who will settle all issues for the people," according to George Mchedlishvili, an associate professor at the European University in Tbilisi.
Georgian Dream defeated the ENM in the 2012 parliamentary elections and has been the ruling party ever since.
However, the party lost its constitutional majority in 2019 after some lawmakers defected amid protests alleging it had failed to follow through on election promises, including electoral reforms.
Georgian Dream also faces a challenge in maintaining its ruling status due to a new rule adopted under the reforms requiring political parties to win 40 percent of the vote to rule on its own. Anything less than 40 percent will require a coalition to form the government, which would be a first for post-Soviet Georgia.
Parliamentary speaker Archil Talakvadze of Georgian Dream has described the passage of the reforms as testimony to Georgia's commitment to democratic principles, but opposition members have said the ruling party only accepted the changes due to pressure from the public and international partners.
Wedged between the Caspian and Black Seas, Georgia's strategic location makes it the main transit country for energy, transport and trade between Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as a key player in Europe's energy security.
Georgian Dream faces competition from ENM, which nominated former President Mikheil Saakashvili to be its candidate for the post of prime minister.
Saakashvili rode the wave of the pro-Western Rose Revolution to the presidency in 2004, and served two terms in office marked by anti-government demonstrations as well as a failed war against Russia over the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.
Following Georgian Dream's parliamentary victory in 2012 and the subsequent arrest of some former high-ranking members of his cabinet on charges of abuse of power, Saakashvili left the country in 2013.
A Georgian court in January 2018 convicted the former president of hiding evidence in the killing of a banker and was sentenced to three years in prison. In June of that year he was also convicted of abuse of power and sentenced in absentia to six years in prison.
The 52-year-old has been campaigning by video link from his self-exile in Ukraine, where he served during his time there as governor of Odesa Oblast from 2015 to 2016.
Three other opposition parties led by former ENM members -- European Georgia, Strategy Agmashenebeli, and the libertarian Girchi -- are also expected to win parliamentary seats, as is the centrist Lelo For Georgia.
A number of other parties are expected to have a chance to gain parliament seats owing to reforms lowering the threshold for entering parliament to 1 percent of the vote, including Russia-friendly parties -- United Georgia, led by former parliamentary speaker and onetime Rose Revolution leader Nino Burjanadze, and the Alliance of Patriots.
The ongoing conflict between fellow South Caucasus countries Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is also expected to have an impact on the vote, amid concerns that Georgia's archrival Russia might increase its influence in the region.
Opinion polls have placed Georgian Dream at the head of the pack going into the election, with from 26 to 52 percent of the vote, but the ruling party's popularity levels have been a roller-coaster in recent months. Support fell sharply this year over concerns about the country's flailing economy before rebounding on the back of support for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The U.S. rights watchdog Freedom House noted in a report earlier this month that 'Georgia has had one of the lowest death rates globally, resulting in a significant popularity boost.'
Polls place the ENM in second, with 16 to 19 percent of the vote, and European Georgia in third with 5 to 8 percent.
The vote is being held under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic. The country's Central Election Commission has approved special procedures allowing more than 10,000 hospitalized citizens to cast votes using mobile ballot boxes.
The vote will be monitored by short- and long-term observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036