TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Sunday’s election will be the last time residents of the former Soviet republic of Georgia get to cast a ballot for president — that’s if any of the 25 candidates gets an absolute majority.
Opinion polls suggest that none of the candidates will exceed the 50 percent needed for a first-round victory and that the country on the Black Sea will have to choose between Sunday’s two top candidates in a runoff that would be held no later than Dec. 1.
Under constitutional changes that began in 2010, Georgia is transitioning to being a parliamentary country. After the upcoming president’s six-year term ends, future heads of state will be chosen by delegates. The presidency’s powers already have been substantially reduced, with the prime minister becoming the country’s most powerful politician.
Most polls show the top three candidates as Salome Zurabishvili, Grigol Vashadze and David Bakradze. Each served a stint as Georgia’s foreign minister during the presidency of now-exiled Mikheil Saakashvili.
Zurabishvili was sacked in 2005 amid disagreements with parliament. She is running as an independent but is backed the powerful Georgian Dream party funded by controversial billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Saakashvili foe. Georgian Dream holds an overwhelming majority in the parliament.
Zurabishvili, however, has been heavily criticized for her contention that Georgia started the 2008 war with Russia. Some Georgians look with suspicion at her foreign background: born in France, she did not visit Georgia until she was in her 30s and she once served as a French diplomat.
Zurabishvili counters that this background is a strong qualification for Georgian president as the country seeks closer ties with the European Union. Georgia also is a strong U.S. ally and has ambitions to join NATO.
“My European experience of what it means to develop in democratic society, while knowing what is Georgian society,” can be useful, she told The Associated Press.
Vashadze, who is backed by a coalition that includes the United National Movement that was founded by Saakashvili, says the election is a choice “between law and order and the constitution, and Ivanishvili, his informal criminal armed groups and corruption, which is back in Georgia.”
“Citizens, businessmen, they are scared to death to contribute a single dime to the united opposition,” he said.
Vashadze says Saakashvili, who was stripped of his citizenship in 2015 and was sentenced in absentia for abuse of power, should be allowed to return to Georgia.
The third top candidate, Bakradze, is from the European Georgia Party, which split off from the UNM. He says Zurabishvili is “unacceptable due to her position and statements, which directly harm Georgia’s security and national interests.”
Some 3.5 million people are registered to vote in the election, which is being monitored by local and international groups.
The Georgian branch of Transparency International on Thursday issued a report claiming that Georgian Dream had misused its position as the governing party by mobilizing government workers to attend Zurabishvili’s rallies.
Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report
This report has been corrected to show that the runoff must be held no later than Dec. 1.
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