TBILISI -- Georgians will choose a new president in a runoff after a very close, inconclusive first-round vote in an election that international observers say was competitive but clouded by "an unlevel playing field" and private-media bias.
French-born former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, who has the backing of the ruling Georgian Dream party, will face opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze in a second round to be held by December 2.
A nearly complete count gave Zurabishvili a razor-thin lead in the first round, with 38.6 percent of the vote, while Vashadze had 37.7 percent, the Central Election Commission said on October 29, a day after the vote.
Both candidates are former foreign ministers of the South Caucasus country, which has warm ties with the United States and European Union. Relations with neighboring Russia remain tense following a five-day war in 2008.
Former parliament speaker Davit Bakradze, nominated by the opposition European Georgia party, was third in a field of 25 with 10.9 percent of the vote. Bakradze said his party will throw its support behind Vashadze in the runoff.
Final first-round results are to be published within 20 days, with the runoff following within two weeks after that.
An observer mission including representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election-monitoring division, ODIHR, said that voters were offered a real choice and that candidates had been able to campaign freely.
But they pointed to problems including "instances of the misuse of state resources" and said that "the involvement of senior state officials from the ruling party in campaigning was not always in line with the law."
"It became clear during the campaign that a significant number of candidates had registered so they could use public funding and free air time to support other contestants, giving those an unfair advantage," the mission said in a statement.
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Zurabishvili, 66, served as Georgia's foreign minister for a little more than a year before she was fired in 2005 amid disagreements with parliament.
She is running as an independent but is backed by Georgian Dream, which was founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and has dominated parliament since 2012.
Vashadze enjoys the backing of an opposition coalition that includes the United National Movement (ENM), which was founded by Mikheil Saakashvili.
Now in exile abroad, former Rose Revolution leader Saakashvili was president from 2004 until 2013, a year after Georgian Dream defeated his ENM in parliamentary elections. Ivanishvili was prime minister for a year and maintains strong influence.
Voter turnout in the October 28 first round stood at 46.7 percent, according to the election commission, nearly the same as in the last presidential election in the former Soviet republic, in 2013.
In 2017, the constitution was amended so that future presidents would be elected by a 300-member College of Electors, comprising parliament deputies and local and regional political representatives.
The president's office is less powerful than that of prime minister in the country of roughly 5 million.
Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze congratulated Georgians after polls closed, saying the vote was held in a "peaceful, free, and democratic environment."
"We all are serving the nation," said outgoing President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is not seeking a second term, after casting his ballot.
Transparency International Georgia said its observers had reported "up to 90" violations ranging from "insignificant" to "relatively serious" ones including alleged vote rigging and vote buying.
Georgia is a strong U.S. ally and has aspirations of joining NATO and the European Union.
Former imperial-era and Soviet-era master Russia backs separatists who hold the breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, which Moscow recognized as independent states after the 2008 war.