Premliminary results in Georgia's election show a convincing win for an ally of the country's prime minister. Georgi Margvelashvili's victory was already apparent from the first exit polls.
Margvelashvili was on around 62 percent of the vote, with about 97 percent of polling stations having been counted, the election commission said.
The figure put Margvelashvili (pictured center), an ally of billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (right), well ahead of former parliament speaker David Bakradze, on around 22 percent.
With the result appearing unequivocal, Margvelashvili addressed cheering supporters at a rally in Tbilisi. "I thank you all so much," he said. "It is our shared victory."
Bakradze had contested the election under the banner of outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement party. The incumbent is constitutionally barred from running for the presidency for a third term.
So convincing were the exit polls that Bakradze quickly conceded defeat after the the close of polling. "I congratulate Giorgi Margvelashvili on his electoral win and the trust expressed in him by the Georgian people," Bakradze said in televised comments.
The vote is expected to strengthen control of Ivanishvili, a bitter political rival of Saakashvili - at least in the short term.
Premier to take on new powers
Ivanishvili has said he intends to step down next month and nominate a new prime minister. Under a new system, the premier is set to take over many of the powers formerly held by the president.
Given the exit poll, Margvelashvili looks set to avoid a runoff with either Bakradze or opposition figure Nino Bujanadze – a former parliament chairwoman.
The election campaign was described by OSCE monitors as "notably calmer" than last year's parliamentary vote.
Last year Saakashvili, a Western ally, saw his UNM party lose control in parliament at the hand's of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition. The election will thus spell a bitter end to the president's time in office and cement his opponent's hold on the country's political power – which means reversing Saakashvili's pro-Western policies and nurturing stronger ties with Russia.
Diplomatic relations with Moscow were severed after August 2008's five-day war between the two countries ended with the defeat of Georgian forces in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Saakashvili has since seen his influence wane, culminating in 2012's parliamentary defeat.
rc/mkg (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)