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

Voters cast their votes in the closely-monitored municipal elections a day after the former president’s arrest.

Voters in Georgia cast their votes in closely monitored municipal elections, a day after former president and opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili returned from exile and was arrested.

The detention of the country’s main opposition figure raised the stakes in Saturday’s polls, which were 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 heads a Ukrainian government agency that is leading the reforms.

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

The flamboyantly pro-Western reformer was detained shortly afterwards on a 2018 conviction in absentia for abuse of office charges. He denies wrongdoing and had denounced his sentence to six years in prison as politically motivated.

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

“Many people are now wondering if there will be a significant change in turnout with people supporting the former president motivated to come out after hearing his words yesterday. He called on Georgians to vote decisively,” said Forestier-Walker.

In a Twitter post on Saturday, accompanied by a photo of a letter to supporters from prison, Saakashvili said: “I would like to ask all of you to go to the elections so that not a single vote is lost.”

He added: “My freedom and, most importantly, the freedom of Georgia depends entirely on your actions and fighting skills.”

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

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

Critics accuse it of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.

Interpol rejected requests from Tbilisi to issue a red warning against Saakashvili.

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