Moscow favourite ahead in first South Ossetia poll results
Exit polls showed Kremlin-backed candidate Anatoly Bibilov had come top in a first round of voting for a new leader in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia on Sunday.
As polls closed at 8:00 pm (1600 GMT), Bibilov, the current emergencies minister, had scored 48.1 percent of the vote in the rebel republic.
Second was former education minister Alla Dzhioyeva with 30.7 percent of the vote. Alan Kotayev, deputy mayor of the region's main city Tskhinvali, came in third with 5.2 percent.
As no candidate won an absolute majority of votes, voting will go to a second round.
It was the first time South Ossetia had voted since Russia recognised its independence following Moscow's 2008 war with Tbilisi.
Voter turnout was 66.26 percent, according to South Ossetia's electoral commission.
Eleven candidates, ranging from a cabinet minister to the boss of a bread factory, are vying to become the president of the self-declared statelet of just 70,000 people in the Caucasus mountains.
Whoever succeeds outgoing leader Eduard Kokoity will be seen as illegitimate by most of the world as its independence is recognised only by Russia and a handful of far-flung states.
Kokoity, a former wrestling champion, has dominated South Ossetia for a decade but the law does not allow him to stand for a third term.
Presidential hopefuls include social democratic leader Dmitry Tasoyev, information minister Georgy Kabisov, bread factory chief Vadim Tskhovrebov and former education minister Alla Dzhioyeva.
One presidential hopeful, Alan Kochiyev, is spending election day in jail after being charged with beating up a deputy.
Dzhambolat Tedeyev -- the main opposition figure in South Ossetia and the trainer of the Russian freestyle wrestling team -- was controversially barred from running on the grounds he had been absent from the region too long.
An AFP correspondent in Tskhinvali said voting had proceeded peacefully but was complicated by a heavy snowfall which made moving about even on foot difficult.
The failure of the authorities to clean up the ramshackle rebel capital is a major election issue. The roads in Tskhinvali are riddled with pot holes and the town turning into a quagmire in bad weather.
Whoever wins will inherit a litany of problems besides the lack of recognition for South Ossetia.
Observers say that much of the funding provided by Moscow to rebuild South Ossetia after the 2008 war was siphoned off by corrupt officials. Tskhinvali has still not been fully rebuilt after the damage sustained in the conflict.
Tbilisi lost control of South Ossetia in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It failed to retake control over the region in the 2008 war with Russia when most of the remaining ethnic Georgian population was driven out.
Moscow subsequently recognised South Ossetia and another Georgian rebel region, Abkhazia, as independent. Russia has built military bases and stationed thousands of troops in South Ossetia.
Georgian Reintegration Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili has slammed the elections as illegitimate polls "held in an non-existent state by a regime established through ethnic cleansing."
A major campaign issue has been whether South Ossetia should become a part of Russia and unite with the neighbouring Russian region of North Ossetia -- an the idea Bibilov has described as a "dream that we cannot give up".
North Ossetia is the home of most of the world's Ossetians, a mainly Orthodox Christian people who speak a language distantly related to Persian.
"I hope that the republic will continue the course that we started in 2001, the course of integration with Russia and the development of our relations," Kokoity said as he cast his vote, the Interfax news agency reported.
Election day is also seeing a referendum on raising the status of Russian in South Ossetia to that of a state language along with Ossetian.
© 2011 AFP