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Georgia PM ally seals presidency win

28 October 2013, 16:29

Tbilisi - An ally of Georgia's billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on Monday savoured a crushing win in presidential polls that ended the decade-long dominance of pro-Western reformer Mikheil Saakashvili.

Giorgi Margvelashvili, a little-known academic from Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, won around 62% of the vote in the poll on Sunday, the election commission said after ballots from more than 97% of polling stations had been counted.

His nearest challenger, ex-parliament speaker David Bakradze from Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) party, trailed behind on just under 22%, official results showed.

Margvelashvili had already claimed victory before cheering supporters at a rally in Tbilisi on Sunday.

"I thank you all so much. It is our shared victory," Margvelashvili said as balloons were released to chants from the crowd.

Basking in the win, Georgia's richest man Ivanishvili - who wrested power from Saakashvili's party in parliamentary polls last year in Georgia's first smooth transfer of power - said that he had been certain of victory.

"All together we will build a Georgia which we dream about," Ivanishvili said. "I congratulate you all."

Goal achieved

Sunday's vote marked the swan song of United States ally Saakashvili's second and last term and his bitter year-long cohabitation with his bete noire Ivanishvili, who has promised to also step down.

In a televised address, Saakashvili urged his supporters to respect the outcome of the poll, while calling it a "serious deviation" from Georgia's path towards development.

"The Georgian voters have expressed their will. I want to tell those who are not happy with the results: we must respect the majority's opinion," Saakashvili said.

Margvelashvili will assume a weaker role than Saakashvili because constitutional changes will see the prime minister take over many key powers from the president and become the dominant force.

Lower stakes this election saw a final turnout of just 46.6%, according to official figures.

Ivanishvili has promised to name his replacement as premier and step down shortly after the polls, arguing that he has achieved his goals.

"This is now the most important thing as the president is no longer the central figure and the next prime minister is now much more powerful," said Koba Turmanidze, Georgia director for the Caucasus Research Resource Centre.

Ivanishvili has hinted his replacement will be a member of his cabinet but has so far kept mum about his or her identity.

#'Voters freely expressed their will'

Election commission chairperson Tamar Zhvania said in a statement on Monday that there were no major violations and that "voters freely expressed their will" at the poll.

Transparency International said however 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.

Russia on Monday voiced cautious optimism over the new leadership.

"We will be hoping that these authorities will pursue a policy towards Russia that is friendly and good-neighbourly," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised comments.

Western allies have expressed concern over perceived selective justice that has seen a string of Saakashvili's close allies imprisoned since his party lost power.

Speculation is mounting over whether Saakashvili - who has said he wants to remain active in politics - could himself face criminal charges.

Ivanishvili, whose coalition will retain control of the government, has labelled Saakashvili a "political corpse" and warned that he could face prosecution.

Saakashvili has pledged not to quit Georgia but a close ally of the president told AFP on condition of anonymity that top US officials were encouraging him to travel to America - at least temporarily.

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 the economy.

But his reforms angered many who felt left out by the rush to modernise, while police brutality used in crushing opposition protests tarnished his image as a pioneering democrat.



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