TBILISI, Georgia — Voters in Georgia on Sunday are choosing a new president for the former Soviet republic on the Black Sea, the last time the president will be elected by direct ballot.
Opinion polls before the election suggested that no one of the 25 candidates was likely to receive the absolute majority needed to win in the first round. If no one wins outright, a runoff between the top two candidates is to be held by Dec. 1.
After the new president’s six-year term in completed, future presidents are to be chosen by a delegate system, part of constitutional changes that make the prime minister the most powerful political figure in Georgia. The president functions as head of state and commander in chief, but the role is otherwise largely ceremonial.
The current president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, is not running.
The three top contenders — Salome Zurabishvili, Grigol Vashadze and David Bakradze — were all foreign ministers during the presidency Mikheil Saakashvili, who now lives in exile.
Ms. Zurabishvili was dismissed in 2005 amid disagreements with Parliament. She is running as an independent but is backed by the powerful Georgian Dream party, which is funded by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Saakashvili rival. Georgian Dream holds an overwhelming majority in Parliament.
Ms. Zurabishvili, however, has been heavily criticized for her contention that Georgia started the 2008 war with Russia. Some Georgians look with suspicion at her foreign background: born in France, she did not visit Georgia until she was in her 30s, and she once served as a French diplomat.
Ms. Zurabishvili counters that this background is a strong qualification for president as the country seeks closer ties with the European Union. Georgia is also a strong United States ally and has ambitions to join NATO.
Mr. Vashadze, who is backed by a coalition that includes the United National Movement that was founded by Mr. Saakashvili, says the former president, who was stripped of his citizenship in 2015 and was sentenced in absentia for abuse of power, should be allowed to return to Georgia.
The third top candidate, Mr. Bakradze, is from the European Georgia Party, which split off from the United National Movement. He says Ms. Zurabishvili is “unacceptable due to her position and statements, which directly harm Georgia’s security and national interests.”
Some 3.5 million people are registered to vote in the election, which is being monitored by local and international groups.