MOSCOW (Reuters) – Georgians voted in municipal elections on Saturday that could determine the outcome of a political crisis, a day after the arrest of a former president who flew in from exile to call for support for the opposition.
Official results would not be available until early on Sunday, and three exit polls predicted differing results, making it unclear whether the ruling party would emerge with enough support to fend off demands that it dissolve parliament.
Former President Mikheil Saakashvili, founder of the main opposition United National Movement, was arrested on Friday after he flew in from exile and called for his supporters to stage a post-election street protest.
Saakashvili had left Georgia in 2013 and was sentenced to prison in absentia in 2018 for abuse of power. The authorities said they had warned him he would be arrested if he returns.
In a letter published on Saturday by his lawyer, Saakashvili, 53, blamed his arrest on false verdicts imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, his long-time foe.
The local elections in the country of around 3.9 million, which include a vote for the mayor of the capital Tbilisi, have taken on national significance amid a months-long political crisis.
The main opposition party boycotted the parliament for months after an election last year. An agreement brokered by the European Union in recent months had called for the government to call a new parliamentary election if Georgian Dream were to win less than 43% of Saturday’s 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 the snap parliamentary election.
An exit poll by the pro-government Imedi channel predicted Georgian Dream winning 47.6% of the vote, with the UNM gaining just 27.1%. But a separate exit poll by opposition channel Mtavari Arkhi had the ruling party ahead only narrowly and falling far short of the 43% threshold, with just 38.6%, to 33% for the UNM.
“If Georgian Dream doesn’t get what it got in the previous parliamentary elections, which was 48.22%, we might have some turmoil again, probably another wave of political crisis,” said Soso Dzamukashvili, junior researcher at Emerging Europe.
President Salome Zourabichvili said after Saakashvili’s arrest that she would not pardon him, and accused him of deliberately trying to destabilise the country.
Saakashvili’s lawyer denounced his arrest on Friday as a “political detention”.
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 questions about the Georgian former President’s arrest were outside its competence.
(This story corrects 7th para to show the main opposition party boycotted the parliament for months after an election last year, not since an election last year.)
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Tom Balmforth and Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Sandra Maler, Frances Kerry, Christina Fincher and Peter Graff)