Georgians vote in key local polls after Saakashvili’s arrest

Voters are casting ballots in closely watched municipal elections a day after former president was arrested.

Voters in Georgia are casting ballots in closely watched municipal elections, a day after former president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili returned from exile and was arrested.

The detention of the country’s foremost opposition figure raised the stakes in Saturday’s polls seen as a key test for the Georgian Dream party, the increasingly unpopular governing party.

Saakashvili, 53, the founder of Georgia’s main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), on Friday said 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 detained 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.

Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the capital, Tbilisi, said Saakashvili’s “surprise” return from exile and subsequent arrest has overshadowed the polls.

“A lot of people are now wondering whether there will be a significant change in the turnout with either people who support the former president motivated to come out after hearing his words yesterday. He called for Georgians to vote decisively,” Forestier-Walker said.

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.

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