By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) – Exit polls from Georgia’s presidential runoff on Wednesday showed the ruling party-backed candidate, who favours balancing the ex-Soviet republic’s relations with Moscow and the West, beating a rival who advocates a stronger pro-Western line.
A Gallup poll for the pro-government television station Imedi suggested Salome Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat who served as Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004-2005, won with 58 percent of the vote.
Her opposition rival, Grigol Vashadze, also a former foreign minister, got 42 percent, it showed.
Another poll, commissioned by opposition-leaning TV station Rustavi-2 and conducted by Edison Research, showed Zurabishvili with 55 percent, while Vashadze got 45 percent.
The figures were released shortly after polls closed at 2000 (1600 GMT).
The Central Election Commission (CEC) plans to announce the first preliminary results in the early hours of Thursday.
The second round of voting was under close scrutiny by opposition and international observers for any sign that the ruling Georgian Dream party is using its control of state machinery to help Zurabishvili win.
The opposition said there have been attacks on its activists during campaigning and complained there were many irregularities during the vote, including attempts to pressure voters and manipulation of voter lists.
The ruling party has denied attempting to influence the outcome of the vote unfairly.
International observers said the first round of voting last month had been competitive, but had been held on “an unlevel playing field” with state resources misused, private media biased, and some phoney candidates taking part.
Vashadze had been expected to use the presidency’s limited powers to send a vocal message of integration with the U.S.-led NATO alliance and the European Union — sensitive issues in the South Caucasus country that fought a war in 2008 with its neighbour Russia.
Georgian Dream and Zurabishvili take a more pragmatic line, balancing the country’s aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonising the Kremlin.
Zurabishvili won 38.6 percent of the vote in the first round on Oct. 28. That was just one percentage point ahead of Vashadze, who was a foreign minister in 2008-2012 in a resolutely pro-Western government that was in power when the conflict with Russia broke out over a Moscow-backed breakaway Georgian territory.
Georgian Dream was founded by billionaire banker Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, and critics say he rules the country from behind the scenes.
Zurabishvili’s supporters say she would bring international stature to the presidency. But her opponents have criticised her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for the 2008 war and remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic.
Constitutional changes have reduced the authority of the president, and put most levers of power in the hands of the prime minister, a Georgian Dream loyalist.
The election was the last in which the president will be selected by popular vote. From 2024, presidents will be picked by an electoral college of 300 lawmakers and regional officials.
(Editing by David Stamp)