TBILISI - An ally of billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili celebrated a crushing victory at presidential polls in the ex-Soviet country Sunday to succeed flamboyant reformer Mikheil Saakashvili after a decade in charge.
Giorgi Margvelashvili, a hitherto little-known academic from the premier's Georgian Dream coalition, was cruising to victory with more than 63 percent of the vote after ballots from some 23 percent of polling stations had been totted up, the election commission said.
His nearest challenger, ex-parliament speaker David Bakradze from Saakashvili's United National Movement party, trailed behind at around 22 percent, official results showed.
Margvelashvili had already claimed victory in front of jubilant supporters at a rally in the capital Tbilisi after exit polls indicated he was ensured of victory shortly after polls closed.
"I thank you all so much. It is our shared victory," Margvelashvili said as balloons were released to roars from the crowd.
Basking in the win for his coalition, tycoon Ivanishvili said at the rally he had been certain of victory.
"All together we will build a Georgia which we dream about," Ivanishvili said. "I congratulate you all."
Fireworks lit up the evening sky in the capital after polls closed in the Caucasus republic of some 4.5 million, as Margvelashvili's supporters honked car horns and cheered.
Runner-up Bakradze was quick to concede defeat.
"I congratulate Giorgi Margvelashvili on his electoral win and the trust expressed in him by the Georgian people," Bakradze said in televised comments.
He said the vote confirmed Saakashvili's UNM party as the main opposition in the country, with partial results giving combative ex-parliament chairwoman Nino Burjanadze just over 9 percent in third place.
Sunday's vote calls time on US-ally Saakashvili's decade in power and his fractious year-long cohabitation with arch-enemy Ivanishvili, who has promised to also step down in the coming weeks.
In a televised address, Saakashvili urged his supporters to respect the outcome of the poll even though he called 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, standing on a podium lined with Georgian flags.
If confirmed, Margvelashvili will assume a weakened role as constitutional changes will see the next president cede many key powers to the prime minister.
The lower stakes meant that voting was slow throughout the day and the final turnout was just 46.6 percent, according to the election commission.
Ivanishvili, 57, wrested power from Saakashvili's party in parliamentary polls last year, marking Georgia's first orderly transition of power.
Earlier in the day voters had said they saw Margvelashvili as a clean break from Saakashvili.
At a polling station in central Tbilisi, professor Serge Tsutskiridze said he had picked "reserved" Margvelashvili because he wanted to see a new style of leader after Saakashvili's divisive rule.
"We don't need another emotional and headstrong president," said the 67-year-old.
'Open and transparent vote'
US ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland said the vote seemed to be going smoothly as he toured polling stations earlier Sunday.
"What's important is that this vote proceeds today in a way that's peaceful, fair, open and transparent and, so far, things seem to be moving in that direction."
Transparency International said however the number of procedural violations was up on last year's vote.
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.
Western allies have expressed concern over perceived selective justice that has seen a string of Saakashvili's close allies arrested since his party lost power.
Saakashvili has said he wants to remain active in politics but Ivanishvili, whose coalition will retain control of the government, has labelled him a "political corpse" and warned that he could face prosecution.
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 Georgia's economy.
But his reforms angered many who felt left out by the rush to change, while police brutality used in crushing opposition protests tarnished his image as a pioneering democrat.