TBILISI The ruling Georgian Dream party declared victory in a parliamentary election in ex-Soviet Georgia on Saturday after two exit polls put it in first place following a tense vote widely seen as a test of political stability.
Criss-crossed by strategically important oil and gas pipelines and traditionally buffeted between Russia and the West, Georgia hopes to join the European Union and NATO one day even though that is something that Russia, its former colonial master, strongly opposes.
A fifth of Georgian territory remains under the control of pro-Russian separatists following a short war with Russia in 2008 and the economy is emerging from a deep slowdown that has eroded living standards.
Two exit polls showed that Georgian Dream, which is pro-Western but also favours closer Russia ties, won Saturday's election. One poll, from international market researcher Kantar Public, put it on 53.8 percent. Another, by international market researcher GfK, gave it 39.9 percent.
Both put the opposition United National Movement (UNM) in second place.
"I congratulate you with a big victory Georgia!" Prime Minister Georgy Kvirikashvili told jubilant supporters gathered outside the party's headquarters in Tbilisi, the capital.
"According to all preliminary results, Georgian Dream is leading with a big advantage," he said, as dozens of party members waved blue party flags and balloons.
Deputy Prime Minister Kakha Kaladze told Reuters the party's own data showed it had won around 59 percent of the vote.
Exit polls showed the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots had also - just - cleared the five percent threshold needed to secure a place in the 150-seat parliament.
The pre-election atmosphere in the nation of 3.7 million, a U.S. ally, was marred by a car bomb that targeted an opposition deputy in Tbilisi. Givi Targamadze survived, but five passers-by were injured.
In a separate attack, two men were shot and wounded on Sunday at an election rally in the town of Gori, while on voting day itself disturbances broke out in the village of Kizilajlo in south-east Georgia where dozens of opposition protesters tried to storm a polling station demanding the vote be cancelled.
Georgian Dream, which came to power in 2012, is funded by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country's richest man, while the opposition UNM was founded by former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
"I'm happy that Georgian Dream has won. I believe that they will do more for people," Murman Sanikidze, 37-year-old Tbilisi resident said on Saturday.
Although the economy is growing, many Georgians are unhappy with their living standards, which have been hit by a decline in exports and remittances.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, helped end UNM's nine-year rule in 2012.
It was the first peaceful transfer of power since the 1991 Soviet collapse and followed protests over a scandal involving the mistreatment of prison inmates and accusations that Saakashvili, who was feted in the West for his reforms, was behaving in an authoritarian manner.
Under Georgian Dream, dozens of ex-officials have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power, and some Western countries have accused the government of selectively applying justice.
Saakashvili, now a regional politician in Ukraine, is wanted at home on a string of charges, including corruption. He says the charges are politically motivated.
(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Stephen Powell)