Georgians vote in major local polls after Saakashvili’s arrest | News

Voters cast their votes in closely watched municipal elections the day after the former president was arrested.

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

The arrest of the country’s leading opposition figure raised the stakes in Saturday’s elections, seen as a key test for the Georgian Dream party, the increasingly unpopular ruling party.

Saakashvili, 53, the founder of Georgia’s main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), said on Friday that he had returned from Ukraine, where he runs a Ukrainian government agency that leads reforms.

Saakashvili escorted by police officers when he arrives at a prison in Rustavi. [Georgian Interior Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

The flamboyant pro-Western reformer was arrested shortly after on a 2018 absentee conviction for abuse of office positions. He denies any wrongdoing and has denounced his six-year prison sentence for political reasons.

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

“A lot of people are now wondering if there will be a significant change in turnout, whether or not the people who support the former president are motivated to leave after hearing his words yesterday. He asked Georgians to vote decisively, ”Forestier-Walker said.

In a Twitter post on Saturday accompanied by an image of a letter to prison supporters, Saakashvili said: “I want to ask everyone to go to the elections so that not a single vote is lost.”

He added: “My freedom and, more importantly, Georgia’s freedom depends entirely on your actions and ability to fight.”

Before his arrest, he had posted a video message on Facebook asking his followers to take to the streets against the government.

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

Critics have accused him of using criminal proceedings to punish political opponents and journalists.

Interpol rejected Tbilisi’s requests to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.

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