Voting in Georgian municipal elections closed on Saturday, a day after the dramatic arrest of former president Mikhail Saakashvili, who called for the country’s “peaceful transition to a real democracy” from police custody.
The detention on Friday of Georgia’s most prominent opposition figure on his return from exile saw the stakes in the elections as a crucial test for the increasingly unpopular Georgian Dream ruling party.
In comments to AFP through a representative who visited him in prison on Saturday, Saakashvili said “Georgia needs a peaceful transition towards a real democracy, where political opponents are not locked up on false charges or in exile.” I am not forced.”
“I am not seeking any political position. I am determined to fight till the end against the oligarchic regime that is killing Georgian democracy,” he said.
He was likely referring to former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a powerful oligarch and founder of the ruling party, who is believed to be calling the shots despite holding no political office in Georgia.
Saakashvili, 53, founder and chairman of Georgia’s main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), from 2004 to 2013, said on Friday that he had returned from Ukraine, where he heads a Ukrainian government agency steering reforms.
The flamboyant pro-Western reformer, who in 2003 led a peaceful “Rose Revolution” that ousted Communist-era elites and still commands a fiercely loyal following, was sentenced in absentia to a 2018 sentence over misbehavior shortly after his arrival. was taken into custody in connection with office fee.
He has denied wrongdoing and termed the six-year prison sentence as politically motivated. The Georgia Rights Ombudsman said he went on a hunger strike after his arrest.
‘we are all equal’
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili defended the decision to detain Saakashvili, saying that “we are all equal before the law, political leaders and ordinary citizens.”
Both the ruling party and the opposition said they were ready to win the election after voting closed at 1600 GMT.
There was 41% turnout as of 5 pm (1300 GMT), the Central Election Commission said, which was expected to release the vote results on Sunday.
Painter Luka Samusia, 27, standing in a long queue of voters outside a polling station in central Tbilisi on Saturday afternoon, said: “If the turnout is high it will be difficult for the government to falsify the vote results.
“They must leave. They cannot send Saakashvili to prison and remain in power,” he said.
Municipal elections in and outside Georgia were being watched for signs of the ruling party’s backlash on democracy.
Critics have accused the Georgian Dream – in power since 2012 – of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists. Interpol turned down Tbilisi’s request to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.
Opposition parties condemned widespread fraud and refused to take their seats after last October’s parliamentary elections, which were narrowly won by the Georgian Dream.
Since then he has staged massive protests and demanded mid-term elections.
The EU mediated an interparty agreement in May, under which the Georgian Dream promised to hold a snap parliamentary vote if it won less than 43% in Saturday’s local elections.
The ruling party withdrew from the treaty in July, but the European Union and the United States urged the government of the EU-desiring country to implement the agreement, which envisages sweeping political and judiciary reforms. Saakashvili insisted the deal remains in place.
With growing concerns in the West over the ruling party’s democratic credentials, the United States has signaled possible sanctions against Georgian Dream officials.