Polls open in Georgia’s presidential elections

Sunday's vote marks the last time the head of state will be elected through direct ballot

Photo: EPA Salome Zurabishvili (C) could become the first female leader of not only Georgia, but any former Soviet state outside the Baltics

Georgians started to vote for a president on Sunday in an election with two former foreign ministers as the frontrunners, including a former French career diplomat who could become the first female leader of an ex-Soviet state outside the Baltics. Over 3,600 polling stations opened at 08:00 local time and the voting is due to last until 20:00. Results are expected late on Sunday. Should the vote go to a runoff, a second round will be held before December 1.

In the last time the head of state is being elected through direct ballot, completing the country’s transition from semi-presidential to parliamentary republic, the ruling Georgian Dream party is backing independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili, 66. Born to Georgian emigre parents in France, Zurabishvili served as French ambassador to Georgia before becoming Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004-2005. Supporters claim she would bring international stature to the presidency, but she is also seen as a somewhat controversial figure by opponents, They has been criticising her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for war with Russia in 2008, for remarks about minorities that some saw as xenophobic. Her unsteady command of the Georgian language, which she speaks with an accent, is also not in her favour.

Her main opponent, Grigol Vashadze, 60, on the other hand, is running on behalf of a new platform of 11 opposition parties led by former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). He held the post of foreign minister from 2008-2012 and his candidacy has been boosted by growing popular discontent over the government's failure to tackle poverty. He has gained popularity by publicly criticising the "informal oligarch rule" of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire leader of the Georgian Dream party and the country's richest man, who stepped down as president in 2013 after just 12 months in office, but who is widely believed to still rule the country.

Georgia, a country of 3.7m people, is a strategic ally of Washington in the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, and hopes eventually to join the EU and NATO - something that both Zurabishvili and Vashadze have campaigned on.

The two frontrunners are followed by David Bakradze, a former parliamentary speaker, who has been nominated by the opposition European Georgia Party, which split from the UNM in 2017. Twenty-two other candidates lag far behind the leading three, being the largest number since Georgia held its first presidential election in 1991.

Constitutional changes have weakened the power of Georgia’s presidency, putting most authority in the office of prime minister. Moreover, In accordance to the new constitution, which will enter into force upon new president’s inauguration, starting from 2024 the heads of state will be elected by a 300-member Electoral College for a term of five years. Yet, the post is still seen as important for the image abroad of a country strongly oriented toward the West and fearful of Russia, which invaded a decade ago and backs separatists in two breakaway regions.

Similar articles