Georgians are heading to the polls to choose a successor to Mikheil Saakashvili, the firebrand reformer who ruled their country for almost a decade.
The presidential vote on October 27 will put an end to an acrimonious, year-long cohabitation between Saakashvili and his rival, billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition ousted Saakashvili's cabinet in parliamentary elections last year.
Saakashvili is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term but has not excluded staying active in politics.
The elections will also usher in profound constitutional changes that will curtail the power of the president, effectively turning Georgia from a presidential into a parliamentary republic.
In Pictures: Mikheil Saakashvili, 2003-13
Mikheil Saakashvili (second from the left), opposition National Movement leader Zurab Zhvania (left), and parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze (third from left), leaders of the opposition bloc Burjanadze-Democrats, meet Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze (right) in Tbilisi on November 9, 2003. Shevardnadze tried to ease tensions over allegations of election fraud by meeting with opposition leaders.
Georgian opposition supporters hold portraits of opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili during a rally outside the parliament in Tbilisi on November 10, 2003.
Georgian opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili (right), surrounded by bodyguards, leaves after a meeting with President Eduard Shevardnadze at the president's residence in Tbilisi on November 23, 2003. Shevardnadze announced his resignation days later, bowing to opposition protesters who stormed parliament and declared a Rose Revolution in the former Soviet republic.
Presidential candidate Mikheil Saakashvili casts his ballot at the polling station in Tbilisi on January 4, 2004.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) talking to Aslan Abashidze (right), leader of the autonomous region of Ajara, during a meeting in Batumi on March 18, 2004. Abashidze, a former Communist Party official, ran Ajara as his personal fiefdom for more than a decade. He relinquished power and fled Georgia in May 2004, an event considered a major victory for Saakashvili.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili salutes while he watches a military parade during his inauguration ceremony in Tbilisi on January 25, 2004. Saakashvili, 37, was Europe's youngest head of state when he was sworn in.
The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos Ilia II (right), blesses newly elected President Mikheil Saakashvili at the Gelati Cathedral in Kutaisi on January 24, 2004.
The new Georgian flag flies in parliament during its session in Tbilisi on January 14, 2004. Georgia adopted a new national flag shortly after Saakashvili was elected president.
Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yushchenko (left) and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) greet residents of the Ukranian capital for the New Year on January 1, 2005 at Independence Square in Kyiv.
President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) and U.S. President George W. Bush (right) wave to the crowd in Tbilisi on May 10, 2005. The peaceful resolution of conflicts is "essential" for Georgia to be integrated into the West, Bush told the tens of thousands of people in the crowd.
President Mikheil Saakashvili visits an orphanage in Tbilisi on January 23, 2006.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sings the national anthem with children in Kodori Gorge, a section of the rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia controlled at the time by Georgian forces (September 27, 2006).
President Mikheil Saakashvili delivers a speech during the NATO Parliamentary Assembly 65th Rose-Roth seminar in Tbilisi on April 19, 2007. Saakashvili said that in 2007 Georgia would be ready for the next stage of integration into NATO and expected to become a candidate for membership "in the nearest months."
President Mikheil Saakashvili speaks to an injured Georgian soldier during a visit to a military hospital in Gori, about 80 kilometers from Tbilisi, on August 7, 2008. Russia accused Georgia of triggering clashes with South Ossetian rebels and Russian forces in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.
A screen grab shows President Mikheil Saakashvili addressing the nation in Tbilisi on August 10, 2008. Saakashvili insisted that his country's troops had pulled out of South Ossetia, and appealed for U.S. diplomatic intervention for the sake of "world order."
President Mikheil Saakashvili, in a camouflage bulletproof vest, visits the town of Gori on August 11, 2008, to examine damage resulting from the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia over the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg on November 23, 2010.
Georgian police use water cannons and tear gas during clashes with protesters in Tbilisi on May 26, 2011. Riot police dispersed several hundred opposition protesters demanding the resignation of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
President Mikheil Saakashvili (left) greets Bidzina Ivanishvili, prime minister nominee and Georgian Dream coalition leader, before their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi on October 9, 2012.
President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses people during a rally held by United National Movement party supporters in Tbilisi on April 19, 2013.
Iago Kachkachishvilil, the head of the sociology department at Tbilisi State University, says there will be a "completely new design of political forces in the country."
"We will have a new president whose [powers] are much lower than the [powers] of the current president. We will have a new constitutional order," Kachkachishvilil says.
As many as 23 candidates, many of them little known on Georgia's political arena, are vying for the presidency -- by far the highest number of contenders running for the post since the country's independence in 1991.
Leading the polls is Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili, a 44-year-old deputy minister and former education minister.
Margvelashvili does not belong to any of the parties aligned in the coalition, although he is a close confident of Ivanishvili.
His main foreign-policy goal is to pursue close ties with the West while mending fences with Russia, a balance the Georgian Dream has sought to achieve after Saakashvili's deeply fraught relations with Moscow that culminated in a 2008 war.
Margvelashvili, a philosopher by education, served twice as rector of the U.S.-funded Georgian Institute for Public Affairs.
While his supporters praise him as a talented, level-headed manager, his critics accuse him of lacking both political experience and charisma.
But some analysts say his relatively late entry into politics could actually appeal to many Georgians, weary of Saakashvili's flamboyant leadership and the bitter disputes that have marred Georgian politics in recent years.
Kachkachishvili, who knows Margvelashvili personally, says: "He has real advantages for holding this position. He is Western oriented, he is educated, he is also a balanced person by character. He is not loaded [down] by his political past. He was not a politician, he doesn't belong to a concrete political party and so that's why he will be, I hope, free from these brutal political games."
Margvelashvili says he is confident of garnering more than 50 percent of votes in the first round and has vowed to withdraw from the race if he must face a runoff.
A poll by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, however, gives Margvelashvili just 39 percent of the votes.
Davit Bakradze, a former parliament speaker and a member of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), trails him with a projected 18 percent.
According to the poll, Nino Burjanadze will come third with 13 percent.
Burjanadze, who helped lead the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power, served as parliamentary speaker during his first term before falling out with him.
She also criticizes the Georgian Dream coalition for failing to deliver on its promises to restore justice.
She favors rebuilding ties with Moscow and setting aside ambitions to join NATO, which she has described as "an illusion."
Despite a relatively calm campaign season, OSCE observers have voiced concerns about the fairness of the upcoming poll.
Many in Georgia are bracing for more political uncertainty.
Ivanishvili abruptly announced in July that he would name a successor and stand down shortly after the vote, although many predict he will continue to pull the strings.
Although he denies waging a political witch-hunt, he is widely accused of using selective justice to target Saakashvili and his camp.
There are fears that Margvelashvili's predicted victory, combined with enhanced prerogatives for the government and the parliament, will deprive Georgia of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Ivanishvili's allies.
Ed Lucas, the international editor of the British weekly "The Economist," says the real test is what happens afterwards.
"It doesn't seem to me that the UNM is going to do very well in the election, and the danger is that the Georgian Dream will see this as a vindication of their approach and then will press their advantage. I think this would be a pity," Lucas says.
Ivanishvili last week described Saakashvili as a "political corpse" and warned that the outgoing president could face prosecution when he leaves office.