By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) – The French-born ruling party candidate in ex-Soviet Georgia’s presidential election said on Sunday she was “cautiously pleased” after exit polls painted contradictory pictures of the outcome of the vote.
An exit poll commissioned by the Georgian Dream ruling party showed its candidate Salome Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat who served as Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004-2005, winning in a single round.
But another poll, commissioned by independent television station Rustavi-2, suggested she was neck in neck with her closest challenger, Grigol Vashadze, another former foreign minister who is backed by an opposition coalition. That poll predicted that no candidate would win more than 50 percent of the vote and the two would face a run-off.
“Let’s wait for an official results … I’m cautiously pleased,” Zurabishvili, who aims to become the first female leader of an ex-Soviet state apart from the Baltics, told reporters.
Zurabishvili, 66, was born to Georgian emigre parents in France and served as French ambassador to Georgia before becoming Georgia’s foreign minister.
Supporters say she would bring international stature to the presidency; opponents criticise her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for war with Russia in 2008, remarks about minorities that some saw as xenophobic, and unsteady command of the Georgian language, which she speaks with an accent.
Zurabishvili was invited into Georgian politics by former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who gave her Georgian citizenship to head his foreign ministry but sacked her after a year. She then set up her own opposition party, which she led until 2010 before temporarily quitting politics and returning to France.
She was elected to Georgia’s parliament in 2016 with the backing of Georgian Dream, a party controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, whose critics say he rules it from behind the scenes.
Constitutional changes have weakened the power of the presidency, putting most authority in the office of prime minister.
But the post is still seen as important for the image abroad of a country strongly oriented towards the West and fearful of Russia, which invaded a decade ago and backs separatists in two breakaway regions.
Sunday’s election was the last in which the president will be selected by popular vote; after that, presidents will be picked by an electoral college of 300 lawmakers and regional officials.
The country of 3.7 million people is Washington’s strategic ally in the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, and hopes eventually to join the EU and NATO. Pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe run across its territory.
Zurabishvili and Vashadze lead a field of 25 candidates for president.
(Editing by Peter Graff)