By Max Delany, AFP
TBILISI — Georgia voted in a presidential poll Sunday with a loyalist of billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili favourite to replace his larger-than-life nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili at the helm of the ex-Soviet state. The vote heralds the end of pro-Western Saakashvili’s second and last term and a year of his painful political cohabitation with bete noire Ivanishvili, who has promised to also step down in the coming weeks. “Today we show that we are true Europeans,” Ivanishvili told journalists as he voted. “People can truly exercise their right to make a free choice.” Stakes at the poll in the Western-backed Caucasus republic of some 4.5 million are lower this time round as constitutional changes will see the next president hand over many key powers to the prime minister after the vote.
Voting was slow at polling stations around capital Tbilisi and official turnout stood at under 18 percent as at mid-day local time (0800 GMT), according to the election commission.
Giorgi Margvelashvili — a previously obscure university dean from Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition – was well ahead of former parliament speaker David Bakradze of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in pre-election opinion polls. 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. “We are confident that the country will make the right choice,” Margvelashvili said as he voted with his student daughter. But 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. Ivanishvili’s coalition will remain in control of the government whatever the result of Sunday’s vote, but the tycoon has promised to stick to a pledge to name a successor as premier and step down. Georgia under Saakashvili has made joining NATO and the European Union a main priority, and Ivanishvili’s coalition has pledged to press on with this drive. They have also promised to try to mend ties with Moscow shattered by a brief 2008 war between the two that saw Georgia effectively lose two breakaway regions, where Russia has now stationed thousands of troops. Over 3.5 million people are eligible to vote in the election which is monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Polls close at 1600 GMT and preliminary results are expected to begin coming out overnight.