Georgia ruling party candidate Zurabishv wins presidential runoff

Salome Zurabishvili, who wants to balance ties between Moscow and the West, got 60 percent votes, partial results show.

    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, according to partial results published on the electoral body's website on Thursday.

    Figures from the Central Election Commission gave French-born Salome Zurabishvili 59.6 percent of the vote in the runoff, which was held on Wednesday.

    Opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze had 40.4 percent, based on results from almost all polling stations, the CEC said.

    Earlier, two exit polls also showed Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat who served as Georgia's foreign minister from 2004 to 2005, with a clear lead.

    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.

    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 phoney candidates taking part.

    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 take a more pragmatic line, balancing the country's aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonising 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 legislators and regional officials.

    Zurabishvili won 38.6 percent of the vote in the first round on October 28. That was just one percentage point ahead of Vashadze 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 criticised her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for the 2008 war and remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency