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Georgians vote for successor to President Saakashvili

Georgians are voting for a successor to President Mikheil Saakashvili. An ally of his political adversary, billionare Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, is tipped to be the winner.

Some 3.5 million eligible voters could vote in Georgia on Sunday, with 23 candidates seeking to become the country's head of state. Saakashvili (pictured above left), who has been in power since 2004, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term for what is now a mostly ceremonial position.

Representing Ivanishvili's (pictured above right) Georgian Dream coalition is Giorgi Margvelashvili, a relatively unknown former education minister. In polls ahead of the election, Margvelashvili was well ahead of ex-parliamentary speaker David Bakradze, from Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM). Margvelashvili expects to get more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff with either Bakradze or opposition figure Nino Bujanadze – a former parliament chairwoman.

The election campaign was described by OSCE monitors as "notably calmer" than last year's parliamentary vote.

Capping a power shift

Last year Saakashvili, a Western ally, saw his UNM party lose control in parliament at the hand's of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition. The election will thus spell a bitter end to the president's time in office and cement his opponent's hold on the country's political power – which means reversing Saakashvili's pro-Western policies and nurturing stronger ties with Russia.

Diplomatic relations with Moscow were severed after August 2008's five-day war between the two countries ended with the defeat of Georgian forces in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Saakashvili has since seen his influence wane, culminating in 2012's parliamentary defeat.

Ivanishvili has vowed to step down next month and nominate a new candidate for what has recently become the most influential office in Georgia, a country of 4.5 million people. The presidency has been a largely ceremonial office ever since a 2010 law change that handed most of its political powers to the prime minister.

Polls are set to remain open until 1600 UTC, with preliminary results expected overnight.

dr/ch (AFP, dpa, AP)