TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The candidate backed by Georgia's billionaire prime minister easily won Sunday's presidential election in this U.S.-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.
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.
Much uncertainty also hangs over Saakashvili's future.
Since last year's election and what was in effect a transfer of power, dozens of people from the outgoing president's team, including several former government ministers, have been hit with criminal charges and some have been jailed, including the former prime minister.
Ivanishvili confirmed in an interview with The Associated Press that Saakashvili also is likely to be questioned by prosecutors once he leaves office next month.
Saakashvili, in a conciliatory televised address on Sunday evening, called on his supporters to accept the will of the majority and keep working to integrate Georgia into Europe.
Prosecutors have reopened a criminal inquiry into the 2005 death of Zurab Zhvania, who was Saakashvili's first prime minister. Zhvania's death was attributed to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty gas heater, but his brother has accused Saakashvili of hiding the truth.
Saakashvili also may face questioning over the 2008 war with Russia, which ended with Russian troops in full control of two breakaway Georgian republics. His opponents accuse him of needlessly antagonizing Russia and giving Moscow a pretext to invade.
Saakashvili repeated earlier Sunday that he has no plans to flee the country. "No one can forbid me either to leave the country or to stay, but I do not intend to leave Georgia," he told television journalists while jogging along the Black Sea coast in western Georgia.
Bakradze's clear margin over the other 21 candidates for president should help Saakashvili's party maintain political influence.
He faced the biggest challenge from Nino Burdzhanadze, a veteran politician who boasts of good relations with Moscow and has called for Saakashvili to be jailed. The exit polls showed her running a distant third with 7.5 percent.
The exit polls were conducted by the market research organization GfK and commissioned by Georgian private television station Rustavi2. Preliminary election results are expected Monday morning.
"The situation in Georgia has become predictable, except for the exit poll showing a higher percent for David Bakradze than expected," said Merab Pachulia, who heads the independent research center Gorbi. "The rest was logical. And this for Georgia is major progress."
While Ivanishvili made his money in Russia and has had some success in restoring trade ties with Georgia's hostile neighbor, he has pushed ahead with EU integration and maintained close ties with the United States. Georgia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
Despite disillusionment in recent years with Saakashvili, commonly known as Misha, the achievements of his presidency are difficult to deny. He brought the economy out of the shadows, restored electricity supplies, eradicated a corrupt traffic police force, and laid the foundation for a democratic state. Georgia's GDP has quadrupled since Saakashvili became president after leading the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution.
"Yes, everyone forgot how we sat in the darkness and what kind of roads we had," Marina Vezirishvili, 46, said after voting in Tbilisi, the capital. "But just so you know, I'm not a member of Misha's party, and I didn't vote for their candidate."
Saakashvili has earned wide international respect for allowing the government to change through the ballot box rather than through revolution for the first time in Georgia's post-Soviet history.
"We have to recognize, whatever our position is inside Georgian political fights, that Georgia has been a great example," said Joao Soares, head of an election monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.