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article imageGeorgia opposition gets boost as presidential vote goes to run-off

By Irakli METREVELI (AFP)     Oct 29, 2018 in Politics

Georgia's hotly contested presidential election has gone to a run-off after no candidate won the first round, in a move that may spell the end of the ruling party's reign, results showed on Monday.

The election is pro-Western Georgia's last direct presidential poll as the former Soviet republic transitions to a parliamentary form of governance.

The new head of state will be a largely ceremonial figure.

A run-off will be held no later than December 2, the election commission said.

Observers view the presidential election as a trial run for the contest between billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition in more important parliamentary polls, which are set for 2020.

Georgian Dream-backed candidate, former French ambassador Salome Zurabishvili, was considered the favourite but failed to win 50 percent plus one vote to be declared outright winner.

Zurabishvili, 66, narrowly led with 38.64 percent of the vote against 37.73 percent for opposition leader Grigol Vashadze, the election commission said.

Vashadze, 60, is supported by former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement and 10 other groups.

Official turnout was nearly 47 percent.

Georgian opposition presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze is backed by exiled ex-president Mikheil ...
Georgian opposition presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze is backed by exiled ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) and 10 other opposition groups
Vano Shlamov, AFP/File

Some analysts described Sunday's vote as a battle between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, who has said he wants to return to Georgia from self-imposed exile in the Netherlands.

"The two commanders-in-chief of Georgia's competing political camps -- Ivanishvili and Saakashvili -- have fought a duel in these elections and Saakashvili came out a winner," political analyst Gela Vasadze told AFP.

- 'Competitive elections' -

Opposition parties in the country of around four million people were expected to support Vashadze in the run-off, forming a united front against the ruling party.

Ex-parliament speaker David Bakradze of the European Georgia party, who came third with nearly 11 percent of the vote, endorsed Vashadze.

The Republican Party and other opposition forces were also expected to close ranks behind him.

Analysts said the outcome will drastically change the country's political landscape, signalling a likely end to Georgian Dream's rule.

A win for Vashadze could also allow Saakashvili to return home. In June, a Georgian court sentenced Saakashvili in absentia to six years in prison over abuse of power.

Saakashvili has denounced the verdict as a political vendetta by arch-foe Ivanishvili.

This year he was also kicked out of Ukraine after he fell out with President Petro Poroshenko.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that "Georgia showed the maturity of its democracy" by holding a "competitive and well administered" election.

But it also said concerns remained over "instances of the misuse of state resources" by the ruling party.

- 'Boost to opposition' -

"The results of the first round mean that Georgians have said a firm 'no' to the one-party political system," said analyst Vasadze.

"This is the beginning of the end for Georgian Dream's domination."

Political analyst Ghia Nodia added: "Vashadze's victory in the presidential election –- which now looks pretty likely -- will be a huge boost to the opposition during the parliamentary elections."

Vashadze has promised to mount a campaign for a snap parliamentary vote if he is elected president.

The career diplomat has criticised Ivanishvili's "informal oligarch rule" amid growing discontent over the government's failure to tackle poverty.

Georgia's richest man, Ivanishvili stepped down as prime minister in 2013 after a year in office but is still seen as the country's de facto ruler.

Vashadze served in the Soviet foreign ministry where he helped craft the US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START I. He was Saakashvili's foreign minister in 2008-2012.

Zurabishvili is the daughter of refugees who fled Georgia in 1921 for Paris after the country's annexation by the Red Army.

Her career in France's foreign service culminated in a posting in Tbilisi.

Then president Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister but Zurabishvili quickly made enemies among the parliamentary majority.

She was sacked after a year on the job, joined the opposition and became one of Saakashvili's top critics.

Both candidates have promised to lead Georgia -- which fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008 -- closer to full membership in the European Union and NATO.

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