TBILISI, Georgia - Voters in Georgia chose local leaders Sunday in the first ballot since President Mikhail Saakashvili led the country into a disastrous war with neighboring Russia nearly two years ago.

Saakashvili's rule has elevated Georgia's status in the West, yet turned it into a bitter adversary of Russia. His party appeared poised for a crucial victory in the capital, Tbilisi, where residents for the first time were allowed to elect the city's mayor directly.

An exit poll by the U.S. pollster Edison Research showed that 61 percent of Tbilisi residents threw their support behind the incumbent, Gigi Ugulava, who belongs to the Saakashvili-led party United National Movement. Irakli Alasania, a former Saakashvili ally turned opposition leader, was in a distant second with 17 percent.

The poll surveyed about 10,000 voters and had a margin of error of 2 percent. Results are expected Monday.

Nationwide voters will elect 64 local councils, but the mayor race in Tbilisi is regarded the ultimate prize since the post could become a stepping-stone for the next president after Saakashvili's second and final term ends in 2013.

Given Georgia's fractured opposition, Saakashvili was buoyed that his United National Movement would fare well in the election. "I am confident in our party's victory, and United National Movement will keep on winning while the country progresses," he said.

But the brief 2008 war, which Georgia lost, seriously damaged his reputation at home. Russia's victory allowed it to consolidate control over two breakaway regions in Georgia - South Ossetia and Abkhazia - and within Georgia produced an influx of thousands of refugees whose homes were destroyed.

Georgi Urushadze, 70, said he voted for the president's party. "There was a time when I was against Saakashvili and his party - they made a lot of mistakes. But look around now - Tbilisi is developing, and pensions are increasing. You'd have to be blind not to see it," he said.

But Lado Beridze, a 26-year-old businessman in Tbilisi, cast his vote for the Christian-Democrats. "They're the party of the future. When they come to power, lots of things will change," he said.