Georgia ruling party leads polls, opposition alleges fraud

Tbilisi (AFP) –


Georgia's ruling party was leading on Sunday in local elections the opposition criticised as fraudulent, deepening a long-running political crisis in the Caucasus country exacerbated by the arrest of ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.

The Georgian Dream party was ahead after nearly all the votes had been counted with 46.6 percent, while all opposition parties combined garnered 53.4 percent in Saturday's ballot, official results showed.

"Georgian Dream's decisive victory yesterday is the victory of peace, stability, and development in Georgia," party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said

Observers from the OSCE said Saturday's voting had been marred by "widespread and consistent allegations of intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters, and an unlevel playing field".

Georgian Dream's "misuse" of resources gave it an "undue advantage," the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said at a press conference, noting cases of "intimidation and violence against journalists".

The vote was held against the backdrop of a long-running political standoff between the country's main parties that had embroiled EU negotiators and deepened this week after Saakashvili returned from exile and was arrested.

The 53-year-old former leader founded the main opposition group, the United National Movement (UNM) and despite working in Ukraine is still seen as the country's foremost opposition figure.

The UNM on Sunday told AFP the election results were "falsified" and vowed to take all "legal" measures to reverse the outcome.

"We have witnessed intimidation and bribing of voters prior to the elections and multiple voting on the election day," a party leader, Giorgi Baramidze, said.

He said the credibility of the vote was damaged because Saakashvili was "first forced into exile and then arrested".

The ruling party however said the closely watched elections "were held at the highest democratic standards".

- Calls to protest -

Several cities, including the capital Tbilisi, will hold second round mayor runoff votes on October 30 between Georgian Dream and UNM candidates.

Critics have denounced a backsliding on democracy in Georgia, saying parliamentary elections held last October were rigged and accusing the ruling party of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.

The United States has hinted at possible sanctions against Georgian officials over the country's backsliding on democracy.

Under an EU-brokered inter-party agreement in May, Georgian Dream had pledged to hold snap parliamentary elections if it won less than 43 percent of the municipal vote.

But it unilaterally withdrew from the pact in July, sparking criticism from the West, and Saturday's result frees them from the obligation to call snap polls.

Saakashvili returned secretly to Georgia on Friday from Ukraine, where he heads a government agency steering reforms, and was quickly detained for alleged abuse of office.

The flamboyant pro-Western reformer and president from 2004-2013, denied wrongdoing, denounced the six-year jail sentence in absentia as politically motivated and went on hunger strike following his arrest.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday that he will be pressing for Saakashvili -- who became a Ukrainian citizen after being stripped of his Georgian passport -- to be returned.

Saakashvili's jailing has aggravated a crisis that engulfed Georgia last October when opposition parties denounced parliamentary elections as rigged, refused to take up their seats in the legislature and staged protests to demand new polls.

Prior to his arrest, Saakashvili called on supporters to take to the streets "to protect election results".