Georgia ruling party leads vote shadowed by Saakashvili’s arrest

The Georgian Dream party ahead in municipal elections held after former president and opposition leader was arrested upon his return from exile.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili casts his vote at a polling station in Tbilisi [Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu]

The ruling Georgian Dream party has taken the lead in a closely watched municipal elections in Georgia held a day after former president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili was arrested upon his return from exile.

According to Russian news agencies citing an exit poll ordered by Imedi TV station on Saturday, the governing party obtained 47.6 percent of votes. The result could avoid a snap parliamentary vote and a political standoff between the governing party and the opposition.

The main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM) founded by Saakashvili, has garnered 27.1 percent votes.

Polls closed at 16:00 GMT, with official results scheduled to be announced late at night. Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the capital, Tbilisi, said “the governing party is already celebrating victory”.

However, it was too early to call the election results as exit polls have been giving conflicting tallies, Forestier-Walker said.

In comments to the AFP news agency through a representative who visited him in prison, Saakashvili said, “Georgia needs a peaceful transition towards a genuine democracy where political opponents are not locked up on falsified charges or forced into exile.”

“I am not seeking any political office, I am just determined to fight to the end against the oligarchic rule which kills Georgian democracy,” he said.

Saakashvili, 53, said on Friday he had returned from Ukraine, where he heads a Ukrainian government agency steering reforms.

Saakashvili escorted by police officers as he arrives at a prison in Rustavi [Georgian Interior Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

The flamboyant pro-Western reformer was arrested shortly afterwards over a 2018 conviction in absentia on abuse of office charges. He denies wrongdoing and had denounced his sentence to six years in jail as politically motivated.

In a Twitter post on Saturday accompanied by a picture of a letter to supporters from prison, Saakashvili said: “I want to ask you all to go to the elections so that not a single vote is lost.”

He added: “My freedom and, more importantly, the freedom of Georgia depends entirely on your actions and fighting ability.”

Prior to his arrest, he had posted on Facebook a video message calling on supporters to take to the streets against the government.

Founded by powerful billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream has been the governing party since 2012.

Critics have accused it of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.

Interpol turned down requests from Tbilisi to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies