November 29, 2018 / 1:14 PM / 10 days ago

Opposition rejects Georgia presidential poll result, urges protests

TBILISI (Reuters) - The defeated opposition candidate in Georgia’s presidential election runoff said on Thursday he did not recognize the victory of his ruling party rival and called for peaceful protests on Sunday.

Margareta Cederfelt, OSCE PA Vice-President, and Kristian Vigenin, OSCE Special Co-ordinator, attend a news conference in Tbilisi, Georgia November 29, 2018. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

French-born Salome Zurabishvili, who had the backing of the ruling Georgian Dream party, won 59.5 percent of the vote in Wednesday’s runoff, while opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze had 40.5 percent, the central election commission said.

Zurabishvili, who served as Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004 to 2005, will be her country’s first female head of state, though the presidency is now largely ceremonial and the prime minister and government wield most executive power.

Zurabishvili favors balancing Tbilisi’s aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonizing Russia, with which Georgia fought a brief war in 2008. Vashadze had advocated a more robustly pro-Western line.

In their assessment of the election, international observers said the campaign had been free and the ballot well-managed but that the ruling party had also enjoyed an “undue advantage”.

Vashadze, whose presidential bid was backed by 11 opposition parties, described the election as “a criminal farce”.

“The united opposition demands an early parliamentary election to be held in Georgia,” Vashadze told hundreds of supporters at a meeting in the center of Tblisi.

Political analysts say they do not expect the election result to trigger any serious unrest in Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people which hopes eventually to join NATO and the European Union.

“HARSH RHETORIC”

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the election, expressed concern about some aspects of the vote.

“The campaign was marred by harsh rhetoric,” Kristian Vigenin, the OSCE special coordinator, told a news conference. “Increased misuse of administrative resources further blurred the line between party and state.”

The opposition has said its activists were attacked during campaigning and complained of “many irregularities” during the vote, including attempts to pressure voters and manipulate voter lists and the use of state machinery to help Zurabishvili win.

Georgian Dream, whose leader Bidzina Ivanishvili is the South Caucasus nation’s richest man, has denied attempting to influence the outcome of the vote unfairly.

Vashadze, 60, who held the post of Georgia’s foreign minister from 2008-2012, was running on behalf of a new platform of 11 opposition parties led by former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).

Saakashvili, the country’s president in 2004-2013, faces criminal charges in Georgia, which he says are politically motivated. He lives in exile in Netherlands.

Georgia is a strategic ally of the United States in the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe criss-cross its territory.

Zurabishvili’s supporters say she will bring international stature to the presidency.

Slideshow (3 Images)

But her opponents have criticized her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for the 2008 war with Russia and for remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic.

Constitutional changes have 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 Gareth Jones

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