TBILISI: Georgians went to the polls Sunday to choose a new president, with an ally of billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili favourite to succeed his reformist rival Mikheil Saakashvili.
Giorgi Margvelashvili -- a little-known academic representing Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition -- was well ahead of former parliament speaker David Bakradze from Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) at pre-election opinion polls in the ex-Soviet state.
The vote calls time on 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.
"Today we show that we are true Europeans," Ivanishvili told journalists as he voted. "People can truly exercise their right to make a free choice."
In a typically boisterous swan song, Saakashvili, 45, toured infrastructure projects he commissioned on the Black Sea coast before heading to the capital Tbilisi where opponents heckled him outside the polling station.
"Our struggle is really worth it and this is a very important phase of our struggle," said Saakashvili, who has to step down after two legally permitted terms in power.
Stakes are lower this time round in the Western-backed Caucasus republic of some 4.5 million as constitutional changes will see the next president cede many key powers to the prime minister after the vote.
Voting was slow at polling stations around capital Tbilisi and official turnout stood at only 39 percent at 1700 local time (1300 GMT), according to the election commission.
Former education minister Margvelashvili, 44, has said he is so sure of claiming the 50 percent needed to win the first round -- in which 23 candidates are running -- that he would withdraw if the vote goes to a run-off.
"We are confident that the country will make the right choice," Margvelashvili said as he voted with his student daughter.
An aggressive challenge from 49-year-old former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze could however force the vote to a second round.
'Completely different type of president' At a polling station in central Tbilisi, professor Serge Tsutskiridze said he picked "reserved" Margvelashvili because he wanted to see a new style of leader after Saakashvili's divisive rule.
"I voted for him because he is a completely different type of person to Saakashvili. We don't need another emotional and headstrong president," said Tsutskiridze, 67.
Other voters wanted Saakashvili's party to remain a force in Georgian politics.
"I voted for David Bakradze, a moderate and experienced politician, because I don't want one-party rule in Georgia," said journalist Ketevan Kurdovanidze, 50.
Ivanishvili, 57, wrested power from Saakashvili's party in parliamentary polls last year, marking Georgia's first orderly transition of power.
US ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland said the vote seemed to be going well as he toured polling stations.
"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 the vote was "calm" but that the number of procedural violations was up on last year's vote.
Ivanishvili's coalition will remain in control of the government whatever the result of Sunday's vote, but the tycoon has promised to name a successor and step down.
Georgia under Saakashvili made joining NATO and the European Union a main priority, and Ivanishvili's coalition has pledged to press on with that drive.
They have 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 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 and police brutality used in crushing opposition protests tarnished his image as a pioneering democrat.
Polls close at 1600 GMT and preliminary results are expected overnight.