The candidate backed by Georgia’s billionaire prime minister easily won Sunday’s presidential election in this U.S.-aligned former Soviet republic, exit polls indicated. His closest rival quickly conceded defeat.
With the convincing victory by former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili in what for Georgia was an unusually calm and predictable election, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has cemented his control.
Although he may now make more progress in decreasing tensions with Russia, Mr. Ivanishvili has maintained the pro-Western course set by the outgoing president, Mikhail Saakashvili.
The main uncertainty is over how Mr. Ivanishvili intends to govern and whether he is willing to see Mr. Saakashvili jailed.
During nearly a decade in power, Mr. Saakashvili put Georgia on the path toward democracy, but he deeply angered many Georgians with what they saw as excesses and authoritarian rule in the later years of his presidency.
Exit polls indicated that Mr. Margvelashvili, 44, whose political experience is limited to a year as education minister, received about 67 per cent of the vote.
The candidate from Mr. Saakashvili’s party, former parliamentary speaker David Bakradze, was in second place with 20 per cent. Mr. Bakradze, who now heads the opposition in parliament, congratulated Mr. Margvelashvili and said he was ready to work together with the prime minister and president.
Long known in Georgia only as a reclusive philanthropist, Mr. Ivanishvili was propelled into the prime minister’s post a year ago when his Georgian Dream coalition routed Mr. Saakashvili’s party in a parliamentary election.
But Mr. Ivanishvili has promised to step down next month and nominate a new prime minister, who is almost certain to be approved by parliament. Under Georgia’s new parliamentary system, the next prime minister will acquire many of the powers previously held by the president.
Mr. Ivanishvili has not yet named his choice to be the next prime minister, and although he says he intends to maintain influence over the government, it’s not entirely clear how.
But his fortune, estimated at $5.3-billion (U.S.), gives him considerable leverage in this country of 4.5 million people, which has a gross domestic product of $16-billion.
Much uncertainty also hangs over Mr. Saakashvili’s future.
Since last year’s election and what was in effect a transfer of power, dozens of people from the outgoing president’s team, including several former government ministers, have been hit with criminal charges and some have been jailed, including the former prime minister.
Mr. Ivanishvili confirmed in an interview with the Associated Press that Mr. Saakashvili also is likely to be questioned by prosecutors once he leaves office next month.
Mr. Saakashvili, in a conciliatory televised address on Sunday evening, called on his supporters to accept the will of the majority and keep working to integrate Georgia into Europe.
Prosecutors have reopened a criminal inquiry into the 2005 death of Zurab Zhvania, who was Mr. Saakashvili’s first prime minister. Mr. Zhvania’s death was attributed to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty gas heater, but his brother has accused Mr. Saakashvili of hiding the truth.
Mr. Saakashvili also may face questioning over the 2008 war with Russia, which ended with Russian troops in full control of two breakaway Georgian republics. His opponents accuse him of needlessly antagonizing Russia and giving Moscow a pretext to invade.
Mr. Saakashvili repeated earlier Sunday that he has no plans to flee the country. “No one can forbid me either to leave the country or to stay, but I do not intend to leave Georgia,” he told television journalists while jogging along the Black Sea coast in western Georgia.