- Associated Press - Thursday, November 29, 2018

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) - Georgia’s new president is the country’s French-born former foreign minister, election officials said Thursday as the losing candidate vowed to challenge the result, calling it a “criminal farce.”

The Central Election Commission said Salome Zurabishvili had won nearly 60 percent of the vote in Wednesday’s presidential runoff, while her rival, Grigol Vashadze, polled just over 40 percent.

Zurabishvili, 66, ran as an independent, but was backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party. Vashadze, 60, was supported by a coalition of opposition forces led by former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement. Both candidates served stints as Georgia’s foreign minister.

Georgia, a country with 4 million people in the volatile Caucasus region, is transitioning to a parliamentary republic, with the prime minister becoming the most powerful figure. Wednesday was the last time voters will directly choose the president. After Zurabishvili’s six-year term ends, future heads of state will be chosen by delegates.

“Our choice is a peaceful Georgia, a united country and of equal citizens,” Zurabishvili said. “Our choice is a dialogue with those parts of society who today have not voted for me and who today don’t agree with us. But we all are citizens of one country.”

After the polls closed, Saakashvili spoke on Rustavi 2 television, claiming that the vote was rigged and calling for protests to annul the results.

Vashadze on Thursday met with his campaign staff and said he would challenge the result, which he described as a “criminal farce.” He urged supporters to take to the streets for a protest rally on Sunday.

Speaking to The Associated Press Thursday evening, Zurabishvili did not comment on Vashadze’s claim but said her priority will be reconciliation within the country.

She also said Georgia has to pursue its aspirations to join NATO despite potential problems with Russia, with which it waged a brief war in 2008.

“I am not just a naive optimist that everything will be solved,” she said. “We have to be very careful and careful not to give the impression to a very aggressive neighbor that it can play with Georgia. It won’t be able to play with Georgia.”

Even though presidential powers have been trimmed, the election was seen as a crucial test for Georgian Dream, which is led and funded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia.

Georgian Dream has controlled parliament and dominated the nation’s political scene since defeating the United National Movement in 2012. While its popularity has waned, Wednesday’s vote indicated that Saakashvili’s party has failed to make decisive gains.

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