Georgia’s ruling party won a commanding lead in a municipal election held a day after the arrest of former President Mikhail Saakashvili, who had returned from exile to support the opposition.
The ruling Georgian Dream Party for the United National Movement (UNM), founded by Saakashvili, won 30.7% of the vote, with 99.97% of the vote count, according to results released by Georgia’s election administration on Sunday.
In the capital Tbilisi, the incumbent mayor Kakha Kaladze won 45% of the vote, while the president of the opposition UNM, Nika Melia, received 34% of the vote. Since no candidate won more than 50%, the city will hold a second round of voting on October 30.
Melia was jailed for three months earlier this year for inciting violence, which she dismissed as politically motivated. His release in May was part of an EU brokerage agreement aimed at solving Georgia’s political crisis.
Saturday’s election was influenced by the return and arrest of 2004-2007 and 2008-2013 president Saakashvili, who was living in exile and pleaded guilty in 2018 to abuse of office.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said on Sunday that Saakashvili would serve his full term of six years in prison.
The country of nearly 3.9 million has faced a political impasse since a disputed election last year that prompted the main opposition party to boycott parliament.
A mission of observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in a statement that Saturday’s local election was affected by “widespread and persistent allegations of intimidation, vote buying, pressure on candidates and voters, and of an unequal game.” ground,” although the candidates were able to campaign freely.
The result is likely to enthuse the ruling party, which at one point agreed to hold a new parliamentary election if its vote share in local polls was less than 43%. Political analysts had said a failure to exceed that limit could prompt opposition demonstrations.
“It is very important that today another step towards democracy and stabilization has been taken,” President Salome Zurabichvili was quoted as saying by Russia’s TASS news agency, describing the election as calm, safe and fair.
The return of Saakashvili created a new drama. Officials said they had warned him that he would be arrested if he returned. In a statement issued after his arrest, he attributed his detention to court decisions produced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Allegations of Russian meddling in Georgia’s domestic politics have dominated for decades, and Saakashvili was president in 2008 when Russia launched a military intervention. The Kremlin said on Friday that questions about Saakashvili’s arrest were beyond its competence.
Saakashvili holds a passport issued by Ukraine, where he served as regional governor from 2015-2016. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that he would personally join efforts to return Saakashvili to Ukraine.