Tbilisi:  Georgians on Wednesday voted in the second round of a presidential election seen as a crucial test for the increasingly unpopular ruling party and watched closely by Russia and the West.

The new head of state will be a largely ceremonial figure, but the vote is seen as a trial run for the contest between billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition in vital parliamentary polls set for 2020.

In the first round on October 28, former foreign minister and ambassador to France Salome Zurabishvili failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote despite being backed by Georgia Dream. She gained 39 percent.

Opposition leader Grigol Vashadze, backed by an alliance led by former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party, won 38 percent of the vote, forcing a run-off.  

Vashadze was narrowly leading in opinion polls ahead of the second round, boosted by the endorsement of another opposition candidate who came third in the first round.

A win for Vashadze would drastically change the country’s political landscape, signalling a likely end to Georgian Dream’s six-year dominance.

Outside a polling station in central Tbilisi, around a dozen voters were queuing under yellowed plane trees shielding them from a blazing autumnal sun.

“I voted for the opposition candidate because I don’t want one-party rule in Georgia. When a government is unchallenged it cares less about people,” Marina Kitia, a 34-year-old doctor, told AFP after casting her ballot.

Another voter, pensioner Bondo Iamanidze, 69, said: “I support Georgian Dream, because Ivanishvili is a great philanthropist and I voted for Salome (Zurabishvili) because she is an experienced diplomat.”

Turnout was 19.6 percent at noon, four hours after polls opened, the central election commission said on a statement.