TBILISI : A loyalist of Georgia’s billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili basked Monday in his presidential election victory to replace pro-Western moderniser Mikheil Saakashvili after a decade in charge of the ex-Soviet nation.

Giorgi Margvelashvili, a once obscure academic from Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, won around 62 percent of the vote in Sunday’s poll, the election commission said after ballots from 99.68 percent of 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. Margvelashvili had claimed victory before cheering supporters at a rally in the capital Tbilisi on Sunday. “I thank you all so much. It is our shared victory,” Margvelashvili said as balloons were released to chants from the crowd.

Savouring the win, Georgia’s richest man Ivanishvili — who wrested power from Saakashvili’s party in parliamentary polls last year in the country’s first smooth transfer of power — said he had been certain of victory.

“All together we will build a Georgia which we dream about,” Ivanishvili said. “I congratulate you all.”

Sunday’s vote marked the end of US ally Saakashvili’s second and last five-year term and his bitter year-long cohabitation with his bete noire Ivanishvili, who has promised to also step down.

In a televised address, Saakashvili 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.

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 meant this election saw a final turnout of just 46.6 percent, according to official figures.

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 has hinted his replacement will be a member of his cabinet but has so far kept silent about his or her identity.

‘Positive and transparent’

OSCE election observers 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.

He has also promised to try to mend ties with Moscow shattered by a brief 2008 war that saw Georgia effectively lose two breakaway regions.

Russia on Monday 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 in televised comments.

Western allies have expressed concern over perceived selective justice that has seen a string of Saakashvili’s close allies imprisoned since his party lost power.

Speculation is mounting over whether Saakashvili — who has said he wants to remain active in politics — could himself face criminal charges.

A Georgian court on Monday found ex-defence minister Bacho Akhalaia guilty of abuse of office and sentenced him to three years and nine months in jail.

Ivanishvili, whose coalition will retain control of the government, 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 that top US officials were encouraging him to travel to America — at least temporarily.

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.