The billionaire opposition leader of Georgia claimed victory in the country's parliamentary election last night after exit polls gave his "Georgian Dream" coalition a shock lead.
Bidzina Ivanishvili's success, if confirmed, would deal a stunning blow to President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has run the former Soviet republic since the Rose Revolution of 2003. It would also send shock waves through a region where changes of government in elections are almost unheard of.
Government aides said that, while they appeared to have lost the popular vote, they might still hold a majority of seats in parliament, which will be decisive in electing a new Prime Minister. The official results will not be known until this morning.
Mr Ivanishvili, a zebra-owning billionaire who made his money in Russia from metals and banking, spoke to cheering crowds outside Georgian Dream's headquarters as the first poll results came in. "We have won! Thank you so much," he said, as supporters cheered and waved balloons.
An exit poll linked to his coalition gave it a 63 per cent to 27 per cent margin over Mr Saakashvili's United National Movement. More surprisingly, even exit polls produced by organisations close to the government gave Mr Ivanishvili a narrow lead, in stark contrast to what government officials have been predicting for months.
Mr Ivanishvili announced his intention to enter politics a year ago, and the run-up to the ballotwas characterised by sharp rhetoric and allegations of foul play.
The 56-year-old, who is Georgia's richest man, has accused the government of intimidating voters and manipulating the media. Mr Saakashvili said his opponent was a Kremlin stooge and accused him of trying to buy votes.
Mr Ivanishvili has said he will serve as Prime Minister for two years if he wins – and then leave politics. Georgia is about to transition from a presidential system to one where the Prime Minister is the key figure.
The government had a healthy majority in most polls before the election, but took a hit after videos surfaced just showing torture and sexual abuse in Georgian prisons. Many voters said they were sick of Mr Saakashvili's regime, which has been accused of using democratic rhetoric to mask an authoritarian streak, and the almost universal popularity he enjoyed in the early years of his rule has been dented. The vote was overseen by more than 62,000 local and 1,600 international observers. Amnesty International said the poll was "marred by harassment and intimidation" by the authorities. But despite claims by both sides of nefarious plots to disrupt the election, voting appeared to take place largely without incident. "Let's thank the international community that they forced the government to play mostly by the rules," said George Gegechkori, an aide to Mr Ivanishvili.
A government spokesperson urged people to refrain from coming to conclusions about the final result, insisting Mr Saakashvili's party may well have won most of the single-mandate parliamentary seats even while losing the popular vote.