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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Former diplomat Salome Zurabishvili elected Georgia's first woman president

Candidate backed by ruling Georgian Dream party gets 60 per cent of votes in run-off

Salome Zurabishvili won Georgia's presidential election in a run-off vote held on November 28, 2018. AP Photo
Salome Zurabishvili won Georgia's presidential election in a run-off vote held on November 28, 2018. AP Photo

Salome Zurabishvili has won Georgia's presidential election, becoming the first woman to hold the office, although the opposition claimed fraud on Thursday.

With all votes counted, the French-born former diplomat had garnered 59.52 per cent of the ballot in Wednesday's second round run-off, the election commission said.

Her rival Grigol Vashadze, from an alliance of 11 opposition parties led by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, won 40.48 per cent.

The election has been regarded as a test of Georgia's democratic credentials as the Caucasus nation seeks membership of the European Union and Nato.

It was also a trial run for more important parliamentary elections in 2020, when the ruling Georgian Dream party is set to face off against a range of opposition parties.

Georgian Dream — the creation of billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who many see as the country's de facto ruler — backed Ms Zurabishvili in the presidential vote.

Mr Saakashvili, Mr Ivanishvili's great rival, claimed "mass electoral fraud" even before official results were released.

"The oligarch has stamped out Georgian democracy and the institutions of elections," he said on the pro-opposition Rustavi-2 television channel.

"I urge Georgians to defend our freedom, democracy and the law. I call on you to start mass peaceful rallies and demand snap parliamentary polls."

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Mr Saakashvili swept to power in 2004 in a mass protest movement known as the Rose Revolution but, after a disastrous 2008 war with Russia, fled the country in 2013 and has since been stripped of his citizenship.

He was sentenced in his absence to six years in prison for abuse of office, a charge he rejected as politically motivated. He now lives in the Netherlands.

Tensions increased before the second round as the opposition accused the government of voter intimidation and claimed that ruling party activists had attacked Vashadze campaign staff.

In turn, Ms Zurabishvili said she and her children had received death threats through text and voice messages from people affiliated with the UNM.

Rights groups have accused government officials of vote-buying on a "widespread" and "unprecedented" scale and of election fraud, including through the alleged printing of fake ID cards.

Opposition supporters will be watching for reports from foreign election monitors, including from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to see if their claims of voter fraud are supported.

OSCE observers were to hold a press conference in Tbilisi later on Thursday.

Street protests against the results could shake the small former Soviet republic, which has endured civil wars, mass demonstrations and unrest since gaining its independence in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

A smooth presidential transition, however, would be welcomed by many as a sign of stability in Georgia, which is emerging as a tourism hot spot and hopes for more foreign investment.

Ms Zurabishvili, 66, and independent politician, is the daughter of refugees who fled Georgia in 1921 for Paris after the country's annexation by the Red Army.

Her career in France's foreign service culminated in a posting to Tbilisi, where then-president Mr Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister.

But Ms Zurabishvili quickly made enemies among the parliamentary majority, with MPs and some senior diplomats accusing her of arrogance and impulsiveness.

When she was sacked after a year in the job, thousands took to the streets of the capital to protest against her dismissal.

Mr Vashadze, 60, a career diplomat, had criticised Mr Ivanishvili's "informal oligarch rule" amid growing discontent over the government's failure to tackle poverty.

The vote was Georgia's last direct leadership poll as it transitions to a parliamentary form of governance.

In the first round on October 28, Ms Zurabishvili took 39 per cent of the vote, against 38 per cent for Mr Vashadze.

More than 3.5 million people were eligible to vote in the election and turnout was 56.23 per cent.