Georgia elected Salome Zurabishvili as its first woman president in a victory for the country’s billionaire kingmaker.
Preliminary results show French-born Zurabishvili defeated Grigol Vashadze by 59.5% to 40.5% in Wednesday’s runoff, with almost all votes counted, Georgia’s Central Election Commission reported on its website. She is the first woman to be elected as president in any former Soviet republic outside the Baltic states.
“Our choice is to have dialogue with those who did not vote for me and those who don’t share our views,” Zurabishvili, 66, told reporters late Wednesday. “We must live together.”
She was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man. Vashadze, 60, who alleged widespread fraud during the election, led an opposition coalition dominated by the United National Movement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Ivanishvili formed Georgian Dream to oust the UNM from power in 2012, 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 between the rival camps 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.
Zurabishvili, a former foreign minister, 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 this month 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.
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