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Georgia opposition gets boost as presidential vote goes to run-off

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Tbilisi (AFP)

Georgia's hotly contested presidential election has gone to a run-off after no candidate won outright in the first round, in a move that may spell the end of the ruling party's reign, results showed on Monday.

The election is pro-Western Georgia's last direct presidential poll as the former Soviet republic transitions to a parliamentary form of governance.

The new head of state will be a largely ceremonial figure.

A run-off will be held no later than December 2, the election commission said.

Ruling-party backed candidate, ex-French national Salome Zurabishvili, was considered the favourite in Sunday's race but failed to win 50 percent plus one vote to be declared an outright winner.

Analysts said that the outcome of the vote will drastically change Georgia's political landscape, signalling a likely end to the rule of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party.

The 66-year-old Zurabishvili narrowly led with 38.64 percent of the vote, compared with 37.74 percent for opposition leader Grigol Vashadze, the election commission said.

The 60-year-old Vashadze is supported by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) and 10 other groups.

Opposition parties in the country of around 4 million people were expected to support Vashadze in the second round run-off, forming a united opposition front against the Georgian Dream ruling party.

Opposition candidate and ex-parliament speaker David Bakradze of the European Georgia party, who came third with nearly 11 percent of the votes, endorsed Vashadze, boosting his chances to win in the second round.

The Republican Party and other opposition forces were also expected to close ranks behind Vashadze.

Official turnout on Sunday stood at nearly 47 percent.

- 'End of one-party rule' -

"The results of the first round mean that Georgians have said a firm 'no' to the one-party political system," analyst Gela Vasadze told AFP.

"The era of a one-party rule in Georgia is now over and this is the begging of the end for Georgian Dream's domination," he added.

Observers view the presidential election as a trial run for the contest between the ruling party and the opposition in more important parliamentary polls, which are currently scheduled for 2020.

"Vashadze's victory in the presidential election ?- which now looks pretty likely -- will be a huge boost to the opposition during the parliamentary elections," said political analyst Ghia Nodia.

Vashadze has promised to mount a campaign for a snap parliamentary vote if he is elected to office.

Zurabishvili, a stylish independent MP and former French ambassador, 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 in Tbilisi.

Then president Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister -- with the approval of France's president at the time, Jacques Chirac.

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

She was sacked after a year in the job, although thousands took to the streets to protest her dismissal.

She then joined the opposition and became one of Saakashvili's fiercest critics.

- 'Oligarch rule' -

Her main rival Vashadze has been boosted by growing popular discontent over the government's failure to tackle poverty.

During the campaign, Vashadze criticised the "informal oligarch rule" of Ivanishvili, the ruling party's billionaire leader.

Georgia's richest man, Ivanishvili stepped down as prime minister in 2013 after just a year in office, but he is widely believed to still be the country's de facto ruler.

Vashadze is a respected career diplomat who served in the Soviet foreign ministry where he helped craft the US-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START I.

He was Saakashvili's foreign minister from 2008-2012.

Vashadze is married to the celebrated prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili.

Both candidates have promised to lead Georgia -- which fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008 -- closer to full membership in the European Union and NATO.

The election was monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

From 2024, the new head of state will be elected by a 300-member electoral college.

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