Georgia‘s ruling party-backed candidate, who favours balancing the ex-Soviet republic’s relations with Moscow and the West, has won the presidential runoff, elections officials said on Thursday as the losing candidate vowed to challenge the result.
The Central Election Commission said French-born Salome Zurabishvili had won nearly 60 percent of the vote, while her rival, Grigol Vashadze, polled just over 40 percent in Wednesday’ presidential runoff.
Georgia, a country with four million people in the volatile Caucasus region, is transitioning to a parliamentary republic, with the prime minister becoming the most powerful figure in the country.
Wednesday was the last time voters will directly choose the president. After Zurabishvili’s six-year term ends, future heads of state will be chosen by delegates.
“Our choice is a peaceful Georgia, a united country and of equal citizens,” Zurabishvili said. “Our choice is a dialogue with those parts of society who today have not voted for me and who today don’t agree with us. But we all are citizens of one country.”
After the polls closed, Saakashvili spoke on Rustavi 2 television, claiming that the vote was rigged and calling for protests to annul the results.
Vashadze on Thursday met with his campaign staff and said he would challenge the results, which he described as a “criminal farce”. He urged supporters to take to the streets for a protest rally Sunday.
The second round of voting was under close scrutiny by the 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.
Balancing the country’s aspirations
Vashadze, who was foreign minister from 2008 to 2012, had been expected to use the presidency’s limited powers to send a vocal message of integration with the US-led NATO alliance and the European Union – sensitive issues in the South Caucasus country that fought a war in 2008 with its neighbour Russia.
Georgian Dream and Zurabishvili took a more pragmatic line, balancing the country’s aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonising the Kremlin.
Zurabishvili, a 66-year-old independent lawmaker, is the daughter of refugees who fled Georgia in 1921 for Paris after the country’s annexation by the Red Army.
She worked in France’s foreign service and was posted to the Georgian capital as an ambassador in 2003. Her career with France culminated where then-president Mikheil Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister in 2004.
On Thursday morning she received blessings from the influential head of Georgia’s Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.
The French foreign ministry said in a statement that Paris was looking forward to working with Zurabishvili “to further strengthen” relations.