MOSCOW: Georgia's ruling party won a commanding lead in a municipal election held a day after the arrest of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who had returned from exile to support the opposition.
The ruling Georgian Dream party won 46.7 per cent of votes to 30.7 per cent for the United National Movement (UNM), founded by Saakashvili, according to results released on Sunday (Oct 3) by the Election Administration of Georgia with of 99.97 per cent of votes counted.
In the capital Tbilisi, incumbent mayor Kakha Kaladze won 45 per cent of the vote, while the chairman of the opposition UNM, Nika Melia, received 34 per cent. As no candidate won more than 50 per cent, the city will hold a second round on Oct 30.
Melia was jailed for three months earlier this year on charges of fomenting violence, which he rejected as politically motivated. His release in May was part of an EU-brokered agreement aimed at resolving Georgia's political crisis.
Saturday's election was overshadowed by the return and arrest of Saakashvili, president from 2004-2007 and 2008-2013, who had been living in exile and was convicted in absentia 2018 of abuse of office.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said on Sunday Saakashvili would serve his full term of six years in prison.
The country of around 3.9 million has faced a political standoff since a disputed election last year, which prompted the main opposition party to boycott the parliament.
A mission of observers from the OSCE said in a statement Saturday's local election had been "marred by wide-spread and consistent allegations of intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters, and an unlevel playing field", although candidates were able to campaign freely.
The outcome is likely to buoy the ruling party, which had agreed at one point to hold a new parliamentary election if its vote share in the local poll was below 43 per cent. Political analysts had said a failure to exceed that threshold could have inspired opposition demonstrations.
"It is very important that today one more step towards democracy and stabilisation was made," President Salome Zourabichvili was quoted as saying by Russia's TASS news agency, describing the election as calm, safe and fair.
Saakashvili's return created fresh drama. The authorities said they had warned him he would be arrested if he returned. In a statement released after his arrest, he blamed his detention on court decisions manufactured by his old foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Georgia's domestic politics have been dominated for decades by accusations of Russian meddling, and Saakashvili was president in 2008 when Russia launched a military intervention. The Kremlin said on Friday questions about Saakashvili's arrest were outside its competence.
Saakashvili holds a passport issued by Ukraine, where he served as a regional governor from 2015-2016. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday he would engage personally in trying to return Saakashvili back to Ukraine.