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Tbilisi - A loyalist of Georgia's billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili ushered in a new era for the ex-Soviet state after scoring a landslide win at a presidential poll to replace reformer Mikheil Saakashvili.
Giorgi Margvelashvili, a hitherto little known ex-education minister from Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, won around 62 percent of the vote in Sunday's poll, the election commission said after ballots from almost all polling stations had been counted.
His nearest challenger, ex-parliament speaker David Bakradze from Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), trailed behind with just under 22 percent, official results showed.
Sunday's vote marked the end of US ally Saakashvili's second and last five-year term and his bitter year-long cohabitation with Ivanishvili, that has seen a string of Saakashvili's top allies arrested.
Margvelashvili said the poll had helped strengthen democracy and represented a landmark for the tiny Caucasus state.
“These elections were exceptional for any post-Soviet country,” he said at a press conference in Tbilisi.
Georgia's richest man Ivanishvili - who wrested control from Saakashvili's party in parliamentary polls last year in the country's first smooth transfer of power - said that he had been certain of victory for his ally.
“We have conducted unique and European elections,” Ivanishvili said at the same conference.
In a televised address, Saakashvili had urged his supporters to respect the outcome of the poll, while calling it a “serious deviation” from Georgia's path towards development.
“The Georgian voters have expressed their will. I want to tell those who are not happy with the results: we must respect the majority's opinion,” Saakashvili said.
Speculation is mounting over whether Saakashvili - who has said he wants to remain active in politics - could himself face criminal charges.
Ivanishvili - who has rejected criticism from Western allies over alleged selective justice - has labelled Saakashvili a “political corpse” and warned that he could face prosecution.
Saakashvili has pledged not to quit Georgia but a close ally of the president told AFP on condition of anonymity top US officials were encouraging him to travel to America, at least temporarily.
Margvelashvili will assume a weaker role than Saakashvili because constitutional changes will see the prime minister take over many key powers from the president and become the dominant force.
The lower stakes at Sunday's poll meant this election saw a final turnout of just 46.6 percent, according to officials.
Ivanishvili has promised to name his replacement as premier and step down shortly after the polls, arguing that he has achieved his goals.
“This is now the most important thing as the president is no longer the central figure and the next prime minister is now much more powerful,” said Koba Turmanidze, Georgia director for the Caucasus Research Resource Centre.
Ivanishvili said that he would likely choose his successor this weekend.
Election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Monday hailed the vote as “positive and transparent”.
“This clean election following a political cohabitation tells me that Georgia's democracy is maturing,” Joao Soares, a senior member of the OSCE observer mission, said in a statement.
Georgia under Saakashvili made joining NATO and the European Union a main priority, and Margvelashvili has pledged to press on with that drive.
Lithuania, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, on Monday applauded Georgia for the vote ahead of a summit next month that will see the ex-Soviet country initial a key free trade deal with the EU.
“Your country has passed yet another test of democracy,” the Baltic state's president Dalia Grybauskaite said in a message to Margvelashvili.
The incoming Georgian president has also promised to try to mend ties with Moscow shattered by a brief 2008 war that saw Georgia effectively lose two breakaway regions.
“The relations are extremely difficult,” Margvelashvili told reporters. “But we are steadfast that there will be no aggression, no destructive actions from us.”
Russia voiced cautious optimism over the new leadership.
“We will be hoping that these authorities will pursue a policy towards Russia that is friendly and good-neighbourly,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
During a turbulent decade, Saakashvili - who came to power after ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in the 2003 “Rose Revolution” -
cut corruption, built new infrastructure and revived the economy.
But his reforms angered many who felt left out by the rush to modernise, while police brutality used in crushing opposition protests tarnished his image as a pioneering democrat.