Georgians have started voting in a tightly contested parliamentary election that is pitting an unlikely union of opposition forces against the increasingly unpopular ruling party led by the country’s richest man.
More than 3.5 million Georgian citizens are eligible for Saturday’s polls that close at 8pm (16:00 GMT).
The South Caucasian nation will elect 120 deputies in the 150-member parliament through proportional party lists – a significant jump from 77 such seats allocated by its earlier system.
The remaining 30 MPs – instead of 73 – will be picked as majoritarians from single-mandate constituencies.
The new rules also lowered the 5 percent threshold to 1 percent, meaning any party that secures one percent of votes will enter the legislature.
The constitutional amendment approved in June also requires 40.6 percent of votes for the formation of a one-party government.
The opposition hopes the significantly modified electoral system will prevent the Georgian Dream party from securing a majority in the parliament for a third straight term.
In an attempt to end Georgian Dream’s dominance, opposition parties signed an agreement to exclude it from forming a coalition government, state media reported on Friday.
Georgian Dream, founded by former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, courted controversy with its policy of pursuing a pragmatic approach to neighbouring Russia, including attempting to restore traditional trade ties.
Georgia lost control of two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in a brief war with Russia in 2008.
Georgian Dream has blamed that conflict on the party in power at that time, the United National Movement.
“I think that all elections should be followed by progress and citizens should have hope. In this case, the elected government is more motivated [to] do everything not to disappoint voters,” Valeri, a Tbilisi resident, said.
“If the government does disappoint, at the election they receive results like those parties that are ousted from the power.”
Giorgi Mskhalaia, 28, told Al Jazeera he will vote against the government mainly because of a violent police crackdown on young people protesting against Russia’s occupation of 20 percent of Georgian land.
At least two people lost an eye and dozens received other injuries last June when police used water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse protesters in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
“Before the crackdown, our only demand was the resignation of the then-speaker of the parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, who allowed [Sergey] Gavrilov – a person who fought against Georgians in [the breakaway region of] Abkhazia and recognises our separatist regions as independent states – to sit in the chairman’s seat in the parliament,” Mskhalaia said.
Georgia, a former Soviet republic, aspires to join the Western military alliance NATO and further strengthen integration with the European Union. Following the 2008 war, Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Russia.
Georgian Dream dominated the last two parliamentary elections, in 2012 and 2016.
Georgia is a parliamentary republic so the party that controls parliament is essentially the one that governs.
Additional reporting by Tamila Varshalomidze