TBILISI (Reuters) – Georgians started to vote for president on Wednesday in an election runoff that pits a candidate backed by the ruling party who favours a policy balancing ties with Moscow and the West against a rival who advocates a stronger pro-Western line.
Polls opened at 0800 (0400 GMT) and the voting is due to last until 2000.
If the opposition challenger Grigol Vashadze wins, he is likely to use the presidency’s limited powers to push a vocal message of integration with the U.S.-led NATO alliance and the European Union — sensitive issues in ex-Soviet country that fought a war in 2008 with its neighbour Russia.
The ruling party and its candidate in the vote, Salome Zurabishvili, take a more pragmatic line, balancing Georgia’s aspirations to move closer to the West with a desire to avoid antagonising the Kremlin.
Zurabishvili, a former French career diplomat and Georgia’s foreign minister from 2004-2005 who is supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party, received 38.6 percent of the vote in the first round on Oct. 28.
That was just one percentage point ahead of Vashadze, who was a foreign minister in 2008-2012 in the resolutely pro-Western government that was in power when the conflict with Russia broke out over a Moscow-backed breakaway Georgian territory.
Constitutional changes have reduced the authority of the president, and put most levers of power in the hands of the prime minister, a Georgian Dream loyalist.
International observers said that the first round of voting had been competitive, but had been held on “an unlevel playing field” with state resources misused, private media biased, and some phoney candidates taking part.
The first round result was a setback for Georgian Dream and its founder, billionaire banker Bidzina Ivanishvili. He is Georgia’s richest man, and critics say he rules the country from behind the scenes.
Zurabishvili’s supporters say she would bring international stature to the presidency. But her opponents have criticised her for statements that appeared to blame Georgia for war with Russia in 2008 and remarks about minorities that some see as xenophobic.
Zurabishvili cut back her public meetings with voters and media appearances after the first round.
The opposition said there have been attacks on opposition activists during campaigning. One opposition coordinator was stabbed and a petrol bomb was thrown into the yard of another activist.
The second round will be under close scrutiny, from opposition and international observers, for any sign the ruling party is using its control of the state machinery to help Zurabishvili win.
The ruling party has denied any link to attacks on opposition activists, and denied attempting to unfairly influence the outcome of the vote.
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Richard Balmforth)