OSCE says ruling party’s candidate had ‘undue advantage’ in Georgia poll

TBILISI (Reuters) – The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said on Thursday that one side in Georgia’s presidential election had enjoyed an “undue advantage” after the candidate backed by the ruling party won a run-off.

French-born Salome Zurabishvili won 59.6 percent of the vote in Wednesday’s runoff, defeating opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze, the central election commission said in the early hours of Thursday.

Zurabishvili, who served as Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004 to 2005, favors balancing the ex-Soviet republic’s relations with Moscow and the West. Her rival, Grigol Vashadze, had advocated a stronger pro-Western line.

Neither candidate won the necessary 50 percent to win outright in a first round of voting last month.

Wednesday’s second round was closely scrutinized by opposition and international observers for any sign that the ruling Georgian Dream party was using its control of state machinery to help Zurabishvili win.

“The second round of Georgia’s presidential election was competitive and candidates were able to campaign freely, however one side enjoyed an undue advantage and the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process,” the OSCE said in its preliminary report.

The OSCE monitoring mission said the election had been well managed, but that administrative resources had been misused during the election.

“The campaign was marred by harsh rhetoric,” it said. “Increased misuse of administrative resources further blurred the line between party and state.”

The opposition said its activists had been attacked during campaigning and complained there were many irregularities during the vote, including attempts to pressure voters and manipulate voter lists

“On election day, voters actively took part and the process was assessed positively, although the observed tracking of voters reinforced concerns about potential intimidation,” the monitoring mission wrote.

The ruling party has denied attempting to influence the outcome of the vote unfairly.

Constitutional changes have reduced the authority of the president and put most levers of power in the hands of the prime minister, a Georgian Dream loyalist.

The election was the last in which the president will be selected by popular vote. From 2024, presidents will be picked by an electoral college of 300 lawmakers and regional officials.

Zurabishvili’s supporters say she will bring international stature to the presidency.

But her opponents have criticized her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for a 2008 war with Russia and for remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic.

Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones

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