Tbilisi (AFP) - Georgia voted in a presidential poll Sunday with a loyalist of billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili favourite to replace his larger-than-life nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili at the helm of the ex-Soviet state.
The vote heralds the end of pro-Western Saakashvili's second and last term and a year of his painful political cohabitation with bete noire 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."
Stakes at the poll in the Western-backed Caucasus republic of some 4.5 million are lower this time round as consitutional changes will see the next president hand over many key powers to the prime minister after the vote.
Voting was slow at polling stations around capital Tbilisi and official turnout stood at under 18 percent as at mid-day local time (0800 GMT), according to the election commission.
Giorgi Margvelashvili -- a previously obscure university dean from Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition - was well ahead of former parliament speaker David Bakradze of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) in pre-election opinion polls.
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 second round.
"We are confident that the country will make the right choice," Margvelashvili said as he voted with his student daughter.
But with a combative challenge from 49-year-old former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze -- and up to 20 percent of voters undecided -- the poll could go to a second round.
'Completely different type of president'
At a polling station in a university in central Tbilisi, professor Serge Tsutskiridze said he voted for "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 said that they hoped to see Saakashvili's party remain a force in Georgian politics despite Saakashvili's exit.
"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.
Observers from non-governmental organisation Transparency International said in a midday statement that the vote was being held in a "calm environment" 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 stick to a pledge to name a successor as premier and step down.
Georgia under Saakashvili has made joining NATO and the European Union a main priority, and Ivanishvili's coalition has pledged to press on with this drive.
They have also promised to try to mend ties with Moscow shattered by a brief 2008 war between the two that saw Georgia effectively lose two breakaway regions, where Russia has now stationed thousands of troops.
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, 45, has said he wants to remain active in politics but Ivanishvili -- who denies that there has been a political witch-hunt --- has labelled him a "political corpse" and warned that he could face prosecution once his immunity ends when he leaves office.
During a tumultuous decade under Saakashvili -- who came to power after ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in the 2003 "Rose Revolution" -- Georgia cut corruption, built new infrastructure and revived the country's devastated economy.
However, Saakashvili's reforms angered many who felt left out by the rush to change and police brutality used in crushing opposition protests tarnished his image as a pioneering democrat.
Over 3.5 million people are eligible to vote in the election which is monitored by international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Polls close at 1600 GMT and preliminary results are expected to begin coming out overnight.
* Politics & Government
* Mikheil Saakashvili
* Bidzina Ivanishvili