TBILISI (Reuters) – Preliminary results from Georgia’s presidential runoff showed the ruling party-backed candidate, who favors balancing the ex-Soviet republic’s relations with Moscow and the West, leading her rival who advocates a stronger pro-Western line.
Presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili (C), accompanied by her daughter Ketevan and son Teimuraz, attends a news briefing dedicated to the results of the presidential election at her campaign headquarters in Tbilisi, Georgia November 28, 2018. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
Figures from the Central Election Commission gave French-born Salome Zurabishvili 58.2 percent of the vote in the runoff, which was held on Wednesday. Opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze had 41.8 percent, based on results from 55 percent of the polling stations, the CEC said on its website.
Earlier, two exit polls also showed Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat who served as Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004-2005, with a clear lead.
The second round of voting was under close scrutiny by opposition and international observers for any sign that the ruling Georgian Dream party is using its control of state machinery to help Zurabishvili win.
The opposition said there have been attacks on its activists during campaigning and complained there were many irregularities during the vote, including attempts to pressure voters and manipulation of voter lists.
The ruling party has denied attempting to influence the outcome of the vote unfairly.
International observers said the first round of voting last month had been competitive, but had been held on “an unlevel playing field” with state resources misused, private media biased, and some phony candidates taking part.
Vashadze, who was foreign minister in 2008-2012, had been expected to use the presidency’s limited powers to send a vocal message of integration with the U.S.-led NATO alliance and the European Union — sensitive issues in the South Caucasus country that fought a war in 2008 with its neighbor Russia.
Georgian Dream and Zurabishvili take a more pragmatic line, balancing the country’s aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin.
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 won 38.6 percent of the vote in the first round on Oct. 28. That was just one percentage point ahead of Vashadze, who was a foreign minister in 2008-2012 in a resolutely pro-Western government that was in power when the conflict with Russia broke out over a Moscow-backed breakaway Georgian territory.
Georgian Dream was founded by billionaire banker Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, and critics say he rules the country from behind the scenes.
Zurabishvili’s supporters say she would bring international stature to the presidency. But her opponents have criticized her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for the 2008 war and remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic.