Rival diplomats to dispute second round of Georgia presidential election

Presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili (C) celebrates the win in the presidential elections in Tbilisi, Georgia, 28 October 2018. [Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA/EFE]

Ex-French diplomat Salome Zurabishvili has taken a slight lead in Georgia’s presidential election, seen as a crucial test for the increasingly unpopular ruling party, results showed on Monday (29 October).

With tallies from 99.57% of precincts counted, Zurabishvili — supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party — was ahead with 38.66% of the vote, compared with 37.7% for opposition leader Grigol Vashadze.

A candidate needs to win 50% plus one vote to be elected in the first round and the vote is likely to go to a run-off to be held by 1 December, the commission said.

Voter turnout was nearly 47% at 2000 local time (1600 GMT) on Sunday, when the polls closed, the commission added.

The presidential campaign saw the ruling party and the opposition cross arms in what is a prelude to their decisive stand-off during parliamentary polls scheduled for 2020.

If elected, Vashadze has promised to mount a campaign for snap parliamentary polls.

Rival former foreign ministers

Zurabishvili, a stylish 66-year-old independent MP, is the daughter of refugees who fled Georgia in 1921 for Paris after the country’s annexation by the Red Army.

Her career in France’s foreign service culminated in a posting to Tbilisi.

Then president Mikheil Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister — with the approval of France’s president at the time Jacques Chirac.

But Zurabishvili quickly made enemies among the parliamentary majority, with MPs and some senior diplomats publicly accusing her of arrogance and impulsiveness.

She was sacked after a year in the job, though thousands took to the streets of the capital to protest her dismissal.

She then joined the opposition and became one of Saakashvili’s fiercest critics.

Her main rival Vashadze — backed by exiled Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and 10 other groups — has been boosted by growing popular discontent over the government’s failure to tackle poverty.

He is a respected career diplomat who served in the Soviet foreign ministry where he helped craft the Soviet-US treaty on the reduction and limitation of strategic weapons. He was Saakashvili’s foreign minister from 2008-2012.

Vashadze, 60, is married to the celebrated prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili.

Last direct ballot

Both candidates have promised to lead Georgia closer to full membership in the European Union and NATO.

The tiny Black Sea nation has knocked on NATO’s doors for more than a decade but the bloc has not yet put Tbilisi on a path to formal membership, despite a pledge in 2008 that it would at some point be admitted.

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Foreign affairs chiefs from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine met in Georgia this week to take part in commemorations marking 10 years since Russia’s invasion of the Caucasus Republic during 2008’s August War.

During a fraught campaign, Vashadze criticised the “informal oligarch rule” of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream’s billionaire leader.

Georgia’s richest man, Ivanishvili stepped down as premier in 2013 after just a year in office, but he is widely believed to still be the country’s de facto ruler.

On the campaign trail, Zurabishvili and Georgian Dream slammed the UNM for alleged human rights abuses during its previous term in power.

The vote is to be Georgia’s last direct presidential poll as it transitions to a parliamentary regime.

The new head of state will be a largely ceremonial figure, and their successor is to be elected in 2024 by a 300-member electoral college.

More than 3.5 million people were eligible to vote in the election, which was monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

EU issues encouraging messages ahead of 10th anniversary of Russia-Georgia war

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini assured Georgia on Tuesday (12 June) that ten years after Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the EU has not given up seeking a “true solution” to the conflict.

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