Georgia’s ruling party was leading on Sunday (3 October) in local elections the opposition criticised as fraudulent, deepening a long-running political crisis in the Caucasus country exacerbated by the arrest of ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.
The Georgian Dream party was ahead after nearly all the votes had been counted with 46.6%, while all opposition parties combined garnered 53.4% in Saturday’s ballot, official results showed.
“Georgian Dream’s decisive victory yesterday is the victory of peace, stability, and development in Georgia,” party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said
Observers from the OSCE said Saturday’s voting had been marred by “widespread and consistent allegations of intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters, and an unlevel playing field”.
Georgian Dream’s “misuse” of resources gave it an “undue advantage,” the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said at a press conference, noting cases of “intimidation and violence against journalists”.
In contrast, Georgia Dream published a press release saying the elections were “competitive and well-run”.
The vote was held against the backdrop of a long-running political standoff between the country’s main parties that had embroiled EU negotiators and deepened this week after Saakashvili returned from exile and was arrested.
The 53-year-old former leader founded the main opposition group, the United National Movement (UNM) and despite working in Ukraine is still seen as the country’s foremost opposition figure.
The UNM on Sunday told AFP the election results were “falsified” and vowed to take all “legal” measures to reverse the outcome.
“We have witnessed intimidation and bribing of voters prior to the elections and multiple voting on the election day,” a party leader, Giorgi Baramidze, said.
He said the credibility of the vote was damaged because ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili was “first forced into exile and then arrested”.
Authorities in Georgia arrested Saakashvili on Friday shortly after he returned from exile in Ukraine.
Saakashvili, a flamboyant pro-Western reformer who left the Caucasus country after his second term as president ended in 2013, announced his return in video messages on Friday, a day before closely watched local elections.
His opponents in the ruling Georgian Dream party had warned Saakashvili would be arrested on a 2018 abuse of office conviction if he returned, and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said he had quickly been detained.
Georgian media reported that Saakashvili was in a jail in the town of Rustavi about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Tbilisi.
The interior ministry released a video showing a smiling and handcuffed Saakashvili being taken from a police vehicle and escorted by two officers inside a facility.
Saakashvili who returned to Georgia yesterday and posted a video of himself in Georgia has been arrested
— Olga Lautman (@OlgaNYC1211) October 1, 2021
Calls to protest
Several cities, including the capital Tbilisi, will hold second round mayor runoff votes on 30 October between Georgian Dream and UNM candidates.
Critics have denounced a backsliding on democracy in Georgia, saying parliamentary elections held last October were rigged and accusing the ruling party of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.
The United States has hinted at possible sanctions against Georgian officials over the country’s backsliding on democracy.
Under an EU-brokered inter-party agreement in May, Georgian Dream had pledged to hold snap parliamentary elections if it won less than 43% of the municipal vote.
But it unilaterally withdrew from the pact in July, sparking criticism from the West, and Saturday’s result frees them from the obligation to call snap polls.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that he will be pressing for Saakashvili — who became a Ukrainian citizen after being stripped of his Georgian passport — to be returned.
Saakashvili’s jailing has aggravated a crisis that engulfed Georgia last October when opposition parties denounced parliamentary elections as rigged, refused to take up their seats in the legislature and staged protests to demand new polls.
Prior to his arrest, Saakashvili called on supporters to take to the streets “to protect election results”.