Georgia elects Salome Zurabishvili as first woman president

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Salome Zurabishvili in Tbilisi on 28 Nov 2018Image source, EPA
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Salome Zurabishvili is the daughter of refugees who fled to France from Georgia in 1921

Salome Zurabishvili has won Georgia's presidential election, becoming the first woman to hold the office.

With nearly all votes counted, the French-born ex-diplomat had 59% of the vote with rival Grigol Vashadze on 40%.

Ms Zurabishvili was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, while Mr Vashadze was a united opposition candidate.

A new constitution is due to come into force, making the role of president largely ceremonial.

Ms Zurabishvili, 66, was born in Paris after her parents fled Georgia in 1921 following its annexation by Soviet forces.

She took up a career in the French foreign service and was posted to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as ambassador in 2003. She later gave up her post and the then-president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, appointed her foreign minister.

The BBC's Rayhan Demytrie in Tbilisi says the strength of the vote for Ms Zurabishvili raises questions. In just a few weeks she managed to get 20% more votes than in the first round.

Yet, our correspondent reports, she failed to connect with voters, and many Georgians could not forgive her for saying it was Georgia that started the war with Russia in 2008. Georgian-Russian relations remain clouded by mutual suspicion.

Ms Zurabishvili told BBC Russian that "considering Russia's current behaviour towards Ukraine, I don't think it means we can move right now to co-operation [with Russia]".

The vote is good news for the most powerful man in Georgia, billionaire Georgian Dream party chief Bidzina Ivanishvili.

It is the last direct election of a Georgian president, as the country is switching to a parliamentary system, following constitutional reforms adopted last year.

Image source, EPA
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Some saw Mr Vashadze as more pro-Western

However the election is also seen as an indicator of how parliamentary elections in 2020 could go.

Georgia is seeking European Union and Nato membership. But both ambitions are obstructed by Russia's troop presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - breakaway regions of Georgia.

The opposition complained of voting irregularities and attacks on its campaigners, but this has been denied by the ruling party.

International observers said the first round of voting last month was held on an "uneven playing field".