TBILISI – Neither of the two front-runners in Georgia's presidential election was likely to win enough votes to secure victory in the first round of voting, the first officials results show.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) said that according to results from 14 percent of the polling stations, Salome Zurabishvili secured 40 percent of the vote and Grigol Vashadze won nearly 38 percent.
Zurabishvili, a French-born former foreign minister, has the backing of the ruling Georgian Dream party. Vashadze, also an ex-foreign minister, is running for the opposition United National Movement (UNM).
Their closest challenger, former parliament speaker Davit Bakradze, who was nominated by the opposition European Georgia party, was a distant third with 10.8 percent of the votes.
He had earlier conceded defeat and said his party will support Vashadze in the event of a runoff.
Turnout stood at 46.7 percent, according to the CEC, nearly the same figure as during the 2013 presidential election.
The presidential election, Georgia's seventh since 1991, will be the last in which the head of state will be elected by direct ballot.
In 2017, the constitution was amended so that future presidents would be elected by a 300-member College of Electors, comprising parliamentarians and local and regional political representatives.
Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze congratulated Georgians after polls closed, saying the vote was held in a "peaceful, free, and democratic environment."
"We are serving all the nation," outgoing President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is not seeking a second term, said after casting his ballot. "We are serving every Georgian, no matter what their political orientation is."
Some 3.5 million were eligible to cast ballots in the election, which is being monitored by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Transparency International Georgia said its observers had reported “up to 90 insignificant and relatively serious violations,” including alleged vote rigging and vote buying.
Dirty Tricks And Mudslinging
There was a record 25 candidates in a bruising race notable more for its dirty tricks and mudslinging than debate on policy.
Zurabishvili, 66, is running as an independent even though she has the backing of Georgian Dream, headed by former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
She has faced personal attacks over her background and been branded a traitor for saying a brief war with Russia over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 occurred because "we yielded to Russia's provocation."
The campaign has also been marked with several releases of secretly recorded audio tapes alleging bribery among state officials, a murder plot implicating former President Mikheil Saakashvili, and claims of witness tampering and torture in politically charged cases.
"If there is a sufficient mobilization of Georgian Dream supporters, Salome Zurabishvili should score a first-round victory," Ivanishvili said.
And if Zurabishvili doesn't clinch a majority of votes in the first round, Ivanishvili said "there is no doubt" she will win a runoff, becoming the first woman outside the Baltics to be elected head of state in a post-Soviet republic.
A woman has previously served as acting president, however.
Nino Burjanadze was twice thrust into the role of president, once just after the 2003 Rose Revolution and again when President Mikheil Saakashvili stepped down in late 2007 to call an early presidential election following a political crisis over a violent crackdown on opposition protesters. Burjanadze was parliament speaker at the time.