Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party and an opposition coalition both claimed victory in a parliamentary election in the former Soviet republic on Monday, raising the prospect of a post-election standoff.
Any signs of instability in the Caucasus country of 4.5 million would worry the West because of its role as a conduit for Caspian Sea energy supplies to Europe and its pivotal location between Russia, Iran, Turkey and central Asia.
The private Imedi channel loyal to the government predicted billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream would win 50 percent of the ballots in party-list voting allocating 77 of the 150 seats in parliament, compared to 41 percent for Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM).
A separate exit poll reported by the Georgian Public Broadcaster had Georgian Dream and the ruling party level on 33 percent. Two polls cited by pro-opposition channels put Georgian Dream far ahead.
But UNM said it believed it had won at least 53 of the 73 seats to be allotted in elections in individual constituencies.
"This means that the United National Movement will have a majority in the new parliament," spokeswoman Chiora Taktakishvili said in televised comments.
Saakashvili says Ivanishvili would move Georgia away from the West and bring it back into Moscow's orbit. Ivanishvili, with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.4 billion or nearly half the size of Georgia's economy, denies this.
Ivanishvili, who entered politics only a year ago, said he believed his six-party coalition would dominate the assembly.
"I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new parliament," Ivanishvili told a cheering crowd in the capital Tbilisi shortly after voting finished. "I have achieved what I have long been striving for."
Georgian Dream supporters celebrated in central Tbilisi, waving flags and honking car horns.
The first partial results are due in the coming hours but it was not clear when the final result would be known.
History of Confrontation
Saakashvili cautioned that votes were still being counted, but said it appeared Georgian Dream had prevailed in the party-list voting while his own party had come out ahead in the individual races.
When parliament convenes, ruling party and opposition deputies should "take their seats and start working in a joint democratic process", he said in a televised address. "We are all Georgian citizens, we should stand together and work together."
But the exit polls emboldened Georgian Dream supporters and could lead to increased tensions if their strong showing is not matched by results in the individual districts.
Saakashvili swept to the presidency after a disputed parliamentary election sparked the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, and led the country into a disastrous five-day war with Russia in 2008.
He won praise at home and in the West for curbing corruption that plagued post-Soviet Georgia and bolstering the economy with reforms. But opponents accuse him of monopolising power, curtailing democracy and suppressing dissent.
Saakashvili, who owes his rise to power to street protests over claims of election fraud, has damaged his image by cracking down during standoffs with political opponents seeking to unite Georgians tired of his rule.
Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse protesters in central Tbilisi in November 2007. Saakashvili then consolidated power by resigning and calling a snap election, which he won while the opposition cried foul.
Security forces again cracked down on protesters in 2010 after opponents occupied a central square.
Before the vote, video of torture, beatings and sexual assault of prison inmates led to street protests after it was aired on two television channels opposed to Saakashvili.
The furore undermined Saakashvili's image as a reformer who had imposed the rule of law and rooted out corruption.
Saakashvili must step down after a presidential election next year, when reforms weakening the head of state and giving more power to parliament and prime minister are to take effect.
If his party retains control of parliament, it may give him a way to keep calling the shots. If not, Ivanishvili could become premier and Georgia's dominant politician.