Georgia’s ruling party has taken a commanding lead over the opposition United National Movement founded by former president Mikheil Saakashvili in municipal elections that have taken on national significance amid a protracted political crisis.
The public cast their votes on Saturday, a day after authorities arrested Saakashvili, who flew in from exile to rally support for the opposition.
The Georgian Dream party had won 47.6% of the votes to the United National Movement’s 30.5%, leaving 48 other parties taking part far behind, according to the Election Administration of Georgia’s count of 85% of the votes so far.
The local elections in the country of around 3.9 million, including for the mayoralty of the capital Tbilisi, come after the main opposition party boycotted parliament for months following a disputed election last year.
An agreement brokered by the European Union in recent months had called for the Georgian government to call a new parliamentary election if Georgian Dream wins less than 43% of the local vote.
That agreement collapsed after the ruling party pulled out, but political analysts say the vote could still trigger protests if Georgian Dream fails to reach the threshold and declines to call a parliamentary election.
Georgia’s domestic politics have been dominated for decades by accusations of Russian meddling in its affairs. Saakashvili was president in 2008, when Russia launched a military intervention.
The Kremlin said on Friday that questions about Saakashvili’s arrest were outside its competence.
Georgia’s current president, Salome Zourabichvili, said she would not pardon him and accused him of deliberately trying to destabilise the country.
Saakashvili’s lawyer denounced his arrest as a “political detention”. In a letter published on Saturday by his lawyer, Saakashvili blamed his arrest on false verdicts imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, his long-time foe.
Photo – Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (L) and Mayor of Tbilisi Kakha Kaladze (C) attend a celebration with the ruling party ‘Georgian Dream’ supporters after local elections in Tbilisi, Georgia. EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE