Georgia holds vote after ex-president Saakashvili's arrest

Tbilisi (AFP) –


Georgians were voting Saturday in closely watched municipal elections, a day after ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili returned from exile and was arrested.

The detention of Georgia's foremost opposition figure raised the stakes in the elections seen as a key test for the increasingly unpopular ruling party.

Saakashvili, 53, the founder of Georgia's main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM) and the country's president in 2003-2014, on Friday said he had returned from Ukraine, where he heads a Ukrainian government agency steering reforms.

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.

His jailing will almost certainly spark upheaval in the small ex-Soviet nation that has been plagued for years by political instability.

"I want to ask you all to go to the elections so that not a single vote is lost," he wrote on Twitter Saturday, posting a picture of a letter to supporters from prison.

"My freedom and, more importantly, the freedom of Georgia depends entirely on your actions and fighting ability."

Prior to his arrest, he posted on Facebook a video message calling on supporters to take to the streets against the government.

The municipal elections are being watched inside and outside Georgia for signs of the ruling party Georgian Dream backsliding on democracy.

Saakashvili is being held at Rustavi prison outside Tbilisi
Saakashvili is being held at Rustavi prison outside Tbilisi Vano SHLAMOV AFP

Saakashvili -- who commands a fiercely loyal following -- called in one video Friday for his supporters to gather on the main thoroughfare in the capital Tbilisi on Sunday.

Founded by powerful billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream has been the ruling party since 2012.

Critics have accused the party of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists. Interpol turned down requests from Tbilisi to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.