According to preliminary figures, Emergency Situations Minister Anatoly Bibilov (widely viewed as Moscow's candidate) and oppositionist Alla Dzhioyeva finished neck and neck in the first round on November 13 with 25-26 percent each. A runoff has therefore been scheduled for November 27.
Of the other nine candidates, the two whom observers believe Kokoity was backing state bakery head Vadim Tskhovrebov and State Media Committee Chairman Georgy Kabisov, received some 10 percent and 7.5 percent of the vote, respectively. The final figures may change slightly: the first set of results released by the Central Election Commission added up to 94.8 percent of the vote and the second to 100.5 percent.
Of the original 17 candidates who registered for the ballot, six pulled out during the final days of the campaign. Most of them appealed to their supporters to vote for Bibilov. So too did two of several prominent opposition figures denied registration on the grounds that they had not lived in South Ossetia permanently for the previous 10 years: gas magnate Albert Dzhussoyev and opposition People's Party leader Roland Kelekhsayev.
Insofar as the election was in many respects a verdict on Kokoity's decade in power, the outcome suggests that a sizeable section of the population (voter turnout was 67.05 percent) does not think Russia's formal recognition of the breakaway region in the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia outweighs or even compensates for the authoritarianism and corruption for which the Kokoity regime has become a byword. It is allegedly such corruption, in the form of embezzlement of much of the tens of millions of rubles made available from the Russian federal budget for postconflict reconstruction, that has left hundreds of families still homeless over three years after the end of the fighting.
Almost all the candidates called for eradicating corruption and building a democratic and economically viable law-based state. The key differences between them lay in foreign policy, both long- and short-term, and specifically relations with Russia. Kokoity and his proteges advocated South Ossetia preserving its quasi-independent status and eventually joining the Russia-Belarus Union State. Dzhioyeva considered independence a top priority and non-negotiable.
Bibilov for his part paid lip service to the need in the short to medium term to strengthen South Ossetia's independence and put an end to its financial dependence on subsidies from Moscow. But he made no secret of the fact that in the long term -- and the Kremlin's time frame has always been long-term -- he considers the unification of South and North Ossetia a given. In his election manifesto, he affirmed that "we are one people. The frontier that separates us, with all its formal procedures, is a humiliation. We all understand that we must move toward reunification with North Ossetia. But that is a long process."
That ambivalence is reflected in Bibilov's seemingly unconscious use of the toponyms "South Ossetia" and "Ossetia" as though they were synonyms. After casting his vote on November 13, for example, he told journalists, "the main thing is that Ossetia has a good and happy future."
How voters' sympathies and antipathies will be reflected in the runoff is difficult to predict. Both Bibilov and Dzhioyeva have expressed confidence they will win. The Russian daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" commented that Kokoity's team badly miscalculated the level of popular discontent, and that if Dzhioyeva had been a man, and/or if other opposition candidates had pulled out and called on their supporters to vote for her, she would have one in the first round.