Georgia presidential vote heads for runoff in setback for ruling party

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia’s ruling party failed to secure the presidency in a single round of voting when its candidate barely beat her main challenger and fell far short of a majority, forcing a runoff, results showed on Monday.

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The ruling Georgian Dream party had long predicted that its candidate Salome Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat who took Georgian citizenship to serve as foreign minister from 2004-2005, would win the vote outright in Sunday’s first round.

But final results on Monday showed her with just 38.7 percent of the vote, one percentage point ahead of the candidate of the main opposition alliance, Grigol Vashadze, another former foreign minister.

The third-place candidate, David Bakradze, who received nearly 11 percent of the vote, announced he would support Vashadze in the second round, a boost to the opposition which includes supporters of former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Although constitutional changes have reduced the authority of the president in favor of a stronger prime minister, the result is a setback for Georgian Dream and its founder, billionaire banker Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man.

International observers said on Monday that the election had been competitive, but had been held on “an unlevel playing field” with state resources misused, private media biased, and some phony candidates taking part.

Although the presidency has been weakened, it is still seen as an important post for the country’s image abroad.

Georgia strives to cultivate close ties with the West to counterbalance Russia, which invaded a decade ago and has recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions. Moscow looms large over its domestic politics as well, with the main political factions frequently accusing each other of failing to stand up to Russian influence.

The country of 3.7 million people is Washington’s strategic ally in the Caucasus region and hopes eventually to join the EU and NATO. Pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe run across its territory.

Zurabishvili, 66, was born to Georgian emigre parents in France and served as French ambassador to Georgia before becoming Georgia’s foreign minister in 2004. She aims to become the first female leader of a former Soviet state apart from the EU-member Baltics.

Her supporters say she would bring international stature to the presidency. But her opponents have criticized her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for war with Russia in 2008 and remarks about minorities that some saw as xenophobic.

Her rival Vashadze, 60, a diplomat and businessman, served as Georgia’s foreign minister from 2008-2012. He secured the backing of a coalition of opposition groups led by former president Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).

Editing by Andrew Osborn and Peter Graff