Georgians voted in a presidential election yesterday for a successor to charismatic reformer Mikheil Saakashvili, with a loyal ally of his billionaire foe Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili favorite to claim victory in the ex-Soviet state.
The poll marks the final act of US-ally Saakashvili’s legally permitted second term in charge and his fraught year of political cohabitation with Ivanishvili, who has also pledged to step down shortly after the vote.
The election in the Western-backed Caucasus republic also heralds constitutional changes that will see a raft of key powers shift from the president to the prime minister.
Opinion polls ahead of the vote put Giorgi Margvelashvili — a former education minister from Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition — well ahead of former parliament speaker David Bakradze of Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
Margvelashvili, 44, has said he is so sure of claiming the 50 percent needed to win the first round — in which 23 candidates are running — that he would withdraw if the vote goes to a second round.
However, with a combative challenge from 49-year-old former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze — and up to 20 percent of voters undecided — the poll could go to a second round.
Georgia under Saakashvili has made joining NATO and the EU a priority, and some voters said they trusted Margvelashvili’s pledge to press on with this drive.
“I support the Georgian Dream and its candidate. We need to cement our place in Europe as a successful country. [Margvelashvili] will bring us closer to this goal,” pensioner Eduard Sarkisian, 67, said outside a polling station in Tbilisi.
Margvelashvili has also promised to try to mend ties with Moscow shattered by a 2008 war between the two that saw Georgia effectively lose two breakaway regions.
Georgian politics remains highly polarized, and some wanted to prevent one party from holding both the presidency and majority in parliament.
“I voted for David Bakradze — a moderate and experienced politician — because I don’t want one-party rule in Georgia,” journalist Ketevan Kurdovanidze said.
Ivanishvili, 57, wrested power from Saakashvili’s party in parliamentary polls last year, marking Georgia’s first orderly transition.
Ivanishvili’s coalition will remain in control of the government whatever the result of yesterday’s vote, but the tycoon has promised to stick to a pledge to name a successor as prime minister and step down shortly after the poll.
While the election campaign was calm, Western allies have expressed concern over perceived selective justice that has seen a string of Saakashvili’s close allies arrested.
Saakashvili, 45, has said he wants to remain active in politics, but Ivanishvili has labeled him a “political corpse” and warned that he could face prosecution once his immunity ends when he leaves office.
During a tumultuous decade under Saakashvili Georgia cut corruption, built new infrastructure and revived the country’s economy.
Saakashvili’s reforms though angered many who felt left out by the rush to change.