Georgia elects its first woman president

Salome Zurabishvili is the first woman to ever run and succeed in the race for the presidential seat

Photo: EPA Salome Zurabishvil (C) celebrates after the announcement of the exit polls following the presidential election in Georgia.

Preliminary results show former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili defeated Grigol Vashadze by 59.5% to 40.5% in Wednesday’s presidential runoff, Georgia’s Central Election Commission reported on its website. Notably, now she will become the first woman to be elected as president in any former Soviet republic outside the Baltic states. 

The bitterly-fought contest between the rival camps was also the first-ever runoff for the presidency in Georgia. It’s also the last direct election for the largely ceremonial post under constitutional changes approved last year that completed Georgia’s shift to a parliamentary system of government.

"The country made a fundamental decision today," Zurabishvili said, according to the television station Rustavi 2. "We all, definitively and firmly, said no to the past."

Zurabishvili, who favours balancing the ex-Soviet republic’s relations with Moscow and the EU, ran as an independent candidate, but was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream Party of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man. Her rival Vashadze, on the other hand, was running on behalf of a new platform of 11 opposition parties led by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) and advocated a stronger pro-Western line.

The newly elected president was born to Georgian parents, emigrated in France and served as French ambassador to Georgia before becoming Georgia's foreign minister. She was considered a favourite to win the elections from the very start, although the significant victory was nonetheless often an uphill battle as she stirred controversy early in her campaign by blaming Saakashvili for Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nonetheless, opponents criticised her for her remarks about minorities that some saw as xenophobic and her unsteady command of the Georgian language, which she speaks with an accent. Yet, in the end she won by pledging to bring international stature to the presidency, as well as bring Georgia closer to NATO and the EU in order to unite the Georgian society. 

Now, Zurabishvili will serve a six-year term, instead of the current five. In 2024, the president will be chosen by a 300-member electoral college made up of members of parliament and local government representatives, with the term reverting to five years.

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