TBILISI, Georgia — The candidate backed by Georgia’s billionaire prime minister easily won Sunday’s presidential election in this US-aligned former Soviet republic, exit polls indicated. His closest rival quickly conceded defeat.
With the convincing victory by former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili in what for Georgia was an unusually calm and predictable election, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has cemented his control.
Although he may now make more progress in decreasing tensions with Russia, Ivanishvili has maintained the pro-Western course set by the outgoing president, Mikhail Saakashvili.
The main uncertainty is over how Ivanishvili intends to govern and whether he is willing to see Saakashvili jailed.
During nearly a decade in power, Saakashvili put Georgia on the path toward democracy, but he deeply angered many Georgians with what they saw as the excesses and authoritarian turn of the later years of his presidency.
Exit polls indicated that Margvelashvili, 44, whose political experience is limited to a year as education minister, will get about 67 percent of the vote. Preliminary results are expected Monday morning.
The candidate from Saakashvili’s party, former parliamentary speaker David Bakradze, was in second place with 20 percent. Bakradze, who now heads the opposition in Parliament, congratulated Margvelashvili and said he was ready to work together with the prime minister and president.
Long known in Georgia only as a reclusive philanthropist, Ivanishvili was propelled into the prime minister’s post a year ago when his Georgian Dream coalition routed Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, in a parliamentary election.
But Ivanishvili has promised to step down next month and nominate a new prime minister, who is almost certain to be approved by Parliament. Under Georgia’s new parliamentary system, the next prime minister will acquire many of the powers previously held by the president.
Ivanishvili has not yet named his choice to be the next prime minister, and although he says he intends to maintain influence over the government, it’s not entirely clear how.
But his fortune, estimated at $5.3 billion, gives him considerable leverage in this country of 4.5 million people, which has a gross domestic product of $16 billion.