Tbilisi: An ally of billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili claimed a crushing first-round victory in a presidential vote Sunday after his main opponent conceded defeat and exit polls pointed to an overwhelming win.
Giorgi Margvelashvili, a little-known academic from the premier’s Georgian Dream coalition, had at least 66 percent of the vote in two television exit polls, well ahead of former parliament speaker David Bakradze of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party, in second place with around 20 percent in the ex-Soviet state.
“I thank you all so much. It is our shared victory,” Margvelashvili told cheering supporters at a rally in Tbilisi.
Fireworks let off by the candidates’ supporters lit up the evening sky in the capital shortly after polls closed in the Caucasus nation of some 4.5 million.
Runner-up Bakradze quickly conceded defeat to his rival, saying he accepted the result of the exit polls.
“I congratulate Giorgi Margvelashvili on his electoral win and the trust expressed in him by the Georgian people,” Bakradze said in televised comments.
Sunday’s vote calls time on US-ally Saakashvili’s decade in power and his fractious year-long cohabitation with arch-enemy Ivanishvili, who has promised to also step down in the coming weeks.
If confirmed, Margvelashvili will assume a weakened role as constitutional changes will see the next president cede many key powers to the prime minister.
According to the most recent figures from the election commission, turnout was at 39 percent three hours before polls closed.
Ivanishvili, 57, wrested power from Saakashvili’s party in parliamentary polls last year, marking Georgia’s first orderly transition of power.
Earlier in the day voters had said they saw Margvelashvili as a clean break from Saakashvili.
At a polling station in central Tbilisi, professor Serge Tsutskiridze said he had picked “reserved” Margvelashvili because he wanted to see a new style of leader after Saakashvili’s divisive rule.
“We don’t need another emotional and headstrong president,” said the 67-year-old.
‘Open and peaceful vote’
US ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland said the vote seemed to be going smoothly as he toured polling stations earlier Sunday.
“What’s important is that this vote proceeds today in a way that’s peaceful, fair, open and transparent and, so far, things seem to be moving in that direction.”
Transparency International said the vote was “calm” but that the number of procedural violations was up on last year’s vote.
Georgia under Saakashvili made joining NATO and the European Union a main priority, and Margvelashvili has pledged to press on with that drive.
He has also promised to try to mend ties with Moscow shattered by a brief 2008 war that saw Georgia effectively lose two breakaway regions.
Ivanishvili’s coalition will retain control of the government but the tycoon has promised to name a successor and step down.
Western allies have expressed concern over perceived selective justice that has seen a string of Saakashvili’s close allies arrested since his party lost power.
Saakashvili has said he wants to remain active in politics but Ivanishvili has labelled him a “political corpse” and warned that he could face prosecution.
During a turbulent decade, Saakashvili — who came to power after ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in the 2003 “Rose Revolution” — cut corruption, built new infrastructure and revived Georgia’s economy.
But his reforms angered many and police brutality used in crushing opposition protests tarnished his image as a pioneering democrat.
Official results are expected to come out overnight.