National flags of Georgia fly from the roof of a building in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photographer: Vincent Mundy/Bloomberg)

Georgia Elects First Woman President as Opponent Calls Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Georgia elected Salome Zurabishvili to be its first woman president in a victory for the country’s billionaire kingmaker, as the losing candidate rejected the result and called for protests.

Preliminary results show French-born Zurabishvili defeated Grigol Vashadze by 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent in Wednesday’s runoff, Georgia’s Central Election Commission reported on its website. Zurabishvili, 66, who was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, is the first woman to be elected as president in any former Soviet republic outside the Baltic states.

“We don’t recognize these elections, Georgia doesn’t have a president,” Vashadze, 60, told supporters at a televised rally in the capital, Tbilisi, on Thursday, alleging widespread ballot violations and intimidation of voters. He called on supporters to join a protest rally planned for Sunday and said the opposition is demanding snap parliamentary elections.

Vashadze, 60, leads an opposition coalition dominated by the United National Movement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who backed the call for protests in a video address to the rally. Ivanishvili formed Georgian Dream to oust the UNM from power in 2012 elections, prompting Saakashvili, who led the 2003 Rose Revolution, to flee into exile after prosecutors brought charges for alleged abuse of authority.

The bitterly fought contest was 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.

‘Undue Advantage’

While the elections were well run and candidates could campaign freely, “one side enjoyed an undue advantage,” international observers led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a report Thursday.

Initiatives such as the announcement of debt relief for 600,000 people by a financial institution linked to Ivanishvili, and the involvement of senior government officials in the campaign “continued to blur the line between the state and party,” according to the report.

“Our choice is to have a dialogue with those who did not vote for me and those who don’t share our views,” Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister, told reporters late Wednesday. “We must live together.”

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. She later clarified that she viewed Russia as the “aggressor,” while accusing Saakashvili of giving in to provocations from Moscow.

Georgia has been a key battleground between Russia and the West since the Rose Revolution 15 years ago tilted the Caucasus republic toward closer ties with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ivanishvili has sought to ease tensions with Russia, largely without success, while continuing Saakashvili’s push to integrate with the EU and NATO.

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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.