TBILISI/MOSCOW, October 27 (RIA Novosti) – An opponent of outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili claimed victory in Georgian presidential elections Sunday just hours after voting stations closed in the former Soviet nation on Russia’s southern border.
Initial exit polls gave Giorgi Margvelashvili, from the anti-Saakashvili Georgian Dream party, about 65 percent of the vote in an election that marks the end of a decade in power for Saakashvili.
“I want to thank everyone who supported me,” Margvelashvili said outside his party headquarters in Tbilisi on Sunday evening where his supporters had already taken to the streets to celebrate his win. “Thanks to the Prime Minister who facilitated today’s victory.”
Margvelashvili is a close ally of Georgian Prime Minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who led Georgian Dream to a crushing victory over Saakashvili’s United National Movement in parliamentary polls in 2012.
Twenty three candidates took part in Sunday's elections in the South Caucasus nation, but the presidential position is less powerful than it was under Saakashvili after laws passed earlier this year diluted presidential powers.
Margvelashvili’s main rival, Davit Bakradze of United National Movement, was given about 20 percent of the vote by exit polls. He said shortly after polling stations closed that the exit polls provided a “clear picture” and that he was prepared to work with the country’s new president.
Both front-runners in the election pledged to continue policies of integration with the European Union and NATO, and have indicated a willingness to improve ties with Russia, which soured badly under Saakashvili.
Turnout among the country’s 3.5 million registered voters was 46.6 percent, according to the country’s election commission.
Outgoing President Saakashvili said on Sunday evening that Georgian voters had “spoken” and called on his supporters to respect the election result.
A Columbia Law School graduate, Saakashvili enjoyed broad public support early in his presidency after he swept to power following Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution" and carried through successful institutional reforms. But a disastruous defeat in a brief war with Russia in 2008 contributed to a later precipitous drop in his approval ratings.
Saakashvili's bitter political rival, Ivanishvili, is a secretive tycoon whose fortune Forbes magazine puts at $.5.5 billion, making him Georgia's richest man. Ivanishvili, who became prime minister last October, has pledged to quit politics after the presidential vote, but has yet to name a successor.
Recast throughout, with latest updates and quote from Saakashvili