In a key test for the Georgia's ruling party, two ex-foreign ministers are now set for a runoff showdown. Salome Zurabishvili once served as France's envoy to Tbilisi, and Grigol Vashadze is backed by Saakashvili.
Polls closed in the country of Georgia on Sunday, in a presidential election widely considered to be a referendum on the unpopular ruling party.
The hotly contested race has pitted former Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili, supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party, against opposition leader Grigol Vashadze, also an ex-foreign minister.
Zurabishvili snatched just under 38.7 percent of the vote, according to the country's electoral commission, putting her just one percent ahead of her rival Vashadze. The pair is now set to face off in the second round of voting, which would be scheduled no later than 2nd of December.
Road to European Union
Both candidates have run similar campaigns, promising to bring the country closer to NATO and the European Union. Vashadze, however, criticizes the ruling Georgian Dream party over what he sees as "informal oligarch rule" of billionaire party chief Bidzina Ivanishvili. The opposition candidate runs on behalf of a bloc of 11 parties, including the United National Movement (UNM) of exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
Read more: Georgia fights over its future
In turn, Zurabishvili is a known critic of Saakashvili and claims the UNM committed human rights abuses during its time in power from 2004 to 2013. The 66-year-old career diplomat was born to a Georgian family in France and had served as France's ambassador to Tbilisi before Saakashvili appointed her foreign minister in 2004, with the approval of France's then-president Jacques Chirac. However, she quickly clashed with the UNM majority and was sacked from the top diplomat job after one year.
No serious violations
A total of 25 candidates took part in the Sunday poll. Incumbent Giorgi Margvelashvili is not running.
Turnout has reached 47 percent when the polls closed at 8 p.m. local time (1600 UTC), the central election commission said. The head of the electoral body, Tamar Zhvania, said that his commission noted some irregularities, but no serious violations during the poll.
The ballot is Georgia's last direct leadership poll following controversial constitutional reforms last year that will see the country transition to a parliamentary form of governance.
Some 3.5 million people are registered to vote in the election, which is being monitored by local and international groups.
mm,dj/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)