Georgians voted in presidential elections on Sunday, with two former foreign ministers as the frontrunners for the largely ceremonial office.
French-born Salome Zurabishvili is projected to be elected with 52.3 percent of votes, according to the exit polls funded by the ruling Georgian Dream party that is backing her, with anti-corruption Grigol Vashadze of the main opposition party expected to secure only 28.1 percent.
But later on Sunday, the speaker of the parliament from the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, said at a news conference that the results from 1,000 polling stations suggested that there would be a second round.
Fifty percent plus one vote is needed to win the first round.
The election is seen as a crucial test for the increasingly unpopular Georgian Dream party and will be the last in which the president is selected by popular vote. In the future, presidents will be picked by an electoral college of 300 legislators and regional officials.
Polls opened at 8am local time (04:00 GMT) and closed at 8pm local time (16:00 GMT). According to the official data, the turnout was 46.74 percent.
Results are expected late on Sunday. Should the vote go to a runoff, a second round will be held before December 1.
Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat, would be the first female leader of not only Georgia but any former Soviet state outside the Baltics.
Born to Georgian immigrant parents, Zurabishvili served as the French ambassador to Georgia before being invited into Georgian politics by former president Mikhail Saakashvili, who gave her citizenship and appointed her as the country’s foreign minister in 2004 but sacked her after a year.
Though running as an independent, Zurabishvili is backed by the Georgian Dream party. Supporters say the 66-year-old would bring international stature to the presidency – which has been weakened as constitutional changes have put more power in the hands of the prime minister.
However, she is a somewhat controversial figure who has been criticised for appearing to blame Georgia for a 2008 war with Russia as well as making apparently xenophobic remarks about minorities.
Her unsteady command of the Georgian language, which she speaks with an accent, is also frequently derided by her critics. A previous presidential bid in 2013 was rejected due to her dual citizenship. She has since renounced her French citizenship.
On the campaign trail, Zurabishvili has criticised Saakashvili’s party for alleged human rights abuses during its time in power.
Seen as the main opponent to Zurabishvili, Vashadze is running on behalf of a recently-formed platform of 11 opposition parties led by Saakashvili. Like Zurabishvili, Vashadze, 60, also served as Georgia’s foreign minister.
He is married to world-renowned prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, who is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of all time.
His candidacy has been boosted by growing popular discontent over the government’s failure to tackle poverty and during his campaign Vashadze has frequently condemned official corruption and alleged political meddling in the judiciary.
He has also criticised the “informal oligarch rule” of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire leader of the Georgian Dream party and the country’s richest man, who stepped down as president in 2013 after just a year in office but who is widely believed to rule the country of 3.7 million people – in which 3.5 million are eligible to vote – from behind the scenes.
Outgoing president Giorgi Margvelashvili refused to run for a second term, saying he is not interested in assuming the reduced role.
Both candidates have campaigned on similar promises to bring Georgia closer to full membership of the European Union and NATO – a long-held ambition for the tiny Black Sea nation, which is a key US strategically in the Caucasus region.
Sunday’s vote will be monitored by is considered a prelude to the decisive standoff between the ruling and opposition parties in parliamentary polls scheduled for 2020.