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PM's man romps home in Georgia poll

The candidate backed by the billionaire prime minister of Georgia comfortably won a presidential election that international observers praised on as a step forward for democracy in the former Soviet republic.

But prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili denigrated the losing party and the 22% of voters who chose its candidate. He also reprimanded his own supporters who had not listened to him and stayed home on election day, saying they had neglected their duties as Georgian citizens.

During a nearly two-hour news conference, Mr Ivanishvili left little doubt that he will remain the most influential figure in Georgia even after he hands over the prime minister's job next month to a member of his team. The tone of his remarks suggested he sees himself less as an elected official and more in the role of a wise patriarch or chief executive.

"He treats Georgia like a company that he has taken over, built according to his desires, and then transferred the management of to his assistants, while still continuing to control it," said Gia Nodia, a political scientist who heads a research institute in Tbilisi, the capital.

Mr Ivanishvili became prime minister a year ago when his coalition routed the party of his bitter rival, outgoing President Mikhail Saakashvili. The billionaire consolidated his political control in Sunday's presidential election when his chosen candidate, 44-year-old former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili, won with 62% of the vote.

Mr Ivanishvili's vast wealth and generosity give him considerable clout. Nearly a decade ago, when Georgia was close to economic collapse, he stepped in to pay the salaries of government officials and beloved theatre actors. Georgians only in recent years learned that he had funded the construction of the new cathedral.

This year, he committed hundreds of millions to a new investment fund to stimulate the economic development of Georgia. His estimated 5.3 billion dollar fortune is equal to one-third of the economic output of the entire Georgian economy.

Mr Ivanishvili said he was stunned that the presidential candidate from the opposition party, former parliament speaker David Bakradze, received as high as 22% of the vote among 23 candidates. "I could not imagine it even in the worst scenario," he said. "And it showed what I was always saying, that we lack political culture."

The election won high praise from international observers. "In a positive and transparent election, the Georgian people have confirmed last year's historic transfer of power," Joao Soares, who led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission, said in a statement. "This clean election following a political cohabitation tells me that Georgia's democracy is maturing."

-AP

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