TBILISI --Near-final results from Georgia show the ruling party well ahead of challengers after nationwide local elections amid high tensions, allegations of electoral fraud, and early claims of victory by the South Caucasus country's two main political forces.
With results from all but one of the country's 3,743 precincts tallied, the ruling Georgian Dream party had nearly 46.7 percent of the vote, according to the Central Election Commission on October 3.
The main opposition party, the United National Movement (ENM), had 30.7 percent of the vote. The rest of the vote was split among the remaining 48 parties, with the For Georgia party third at nearly 7.8 percent.
The mayoral races in Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Poti and Rustavi were all heading for runoffs after no candidate got an absolute majority of votes.
The elections "took place in a calm, fair, safe and competitive environment. It is very important that today one more step towards democracy and stabilisation was made," President Salome Zurabishvili was quoted as saying by Russia's state-run TASS news agency.
The nationwide elections were held on October 2 in a highly polarized atmosphere and were seen as a referendum on Georgian Dream's rule.
The opposition was seeking to use the elections as leverage to demand early parliamentary elections if Georgian Dream failed to get more than 43 percent of the national vote.
Tensions were heightened with the arrest of former President and ENM founder Mikheil Saakashvili within hours of his return from self-exile to rally the opposition ahead of the vote. Saakashvili was convicted in absentia in 2018 of abuse of office.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said on October 3 that Saakashvili would serve his full term of six years in prison.
A mission of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in a statement on October 3 the election had been "marred by widespread and consistent allegations of intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters, and an unlevel playing field," although candidates were able to campaign freely.
In the capital, Tbilisi, the mayoral race appeared headed for a runoff with more than 99 percent of the votes counted.
Mayor Kakha Kaladze of Georgian Dream had nearly 45 percent of the vote, while ENM party chief Nika Melia was at 34 percent.
The incumbent conceded on October 3 that he had failed to reach the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff, saying he respected the will of voters and would begin to assess the reasons for the result, mentioning the strained political atmosphere as one potential cause.
Kaladze claimed, however, that Georgian Dream had retained its majority in the Tbilisi city council, although it appeared to have lost seats.
According to the election commission, all five of the mayoral races being contested in the country were heading for a runoff, and three of the races were led by opposition candidates.
Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said that he was saddened that the Tbilisi race would go to a second round, but claimed the ruling party had "won convincingly" and predicted that all its candidates facing runoff votes would win.
He scolded the opposition during an October 3 press conference. "You are in a difficult situation," he told a reporter for the opposition-aligned TV channel Mtavari Arkhi in response to a question. "You have severely lost the election, but this should not make you lose face."
After polls closed on October 2, opposition leader Melia claimed Georgian Dream had "lost the political center" and accused the ruling party of "voter intimidation and vote-buying." He called on Georgians to "be mobilized so that Georgian Dream can't manipulate election results."
As the results came in the, other opposition leaders also said there were widespread irregularities despite Georgian Dream saying the elections had been held to the "highest democratic standards."
"The election results were falsified. We have witnessed intimidation and bribing of voters prior to the elections, multiple voting on the election day," Giorgi Baramidze, a leader of the ENM, told AFP.
The Interior Ministry announced on October 3 that it had launched 16 criminal investigations related to incidents that took place on voting day, including physical violence near or at polling stations.
Nongovernmental organizations monitoring the elections reported dozens of suspected cases of electoral fraud, including vote-buying, violations of the secrecy of the ballot, and "carousel voting" -- where voters are bussed into multiple polling stations as an organized group.
According to the Central Election Commission, 366 complaints were filed with the district election commissions during election day, most of them being "procedural deficiencies [that will] require disciplinary action against commission members."
An independent union of journalists, the Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics, reported cases where journalists were cursed, threatened, or physically assaulted at polling stations.
Transparency International, whose Georgia branch had about 300 observers on the ground, reported 160 violations, including multiple voting, the obstruction of monitoring, and the harassment of journalists. The violations led to the filing of 30 complaints, the corruption watchdog said.
Overall, voters cast ballots for mayors in 64 municipalities, as well as nearly 2,100 members of local self-governing councils. Voter turnout nationally stood at nearly 52 percent, according to election authorities.
The local elections come as the country has been in a protracted political crisis since Georgian Dream won parliamentary elections a year ago. Opposition parties claimed the vote was unfair and fraudulent, while international observers said it had been competitive and that fundamental freedoms were generally respected.
Under an EU-brokered agreement reached in April to defuse the paralyzing political crisis between Georgian Dream and opposition parties, early parliamentary elections were to be called in 2022 if Georgian Dream received less than 43 percent in local elections.
But in July, Georgian Dream leader Kobakhidze annulled the so-called April 19 agreement, blaming the opposition for its failure and claiming most other key provisions had been met.
At the time, Kobakhidze said that smaller opposition parties signed the agreement, but the larger "radical opposition" blocs including the main opposition ENM refused to join the deal.
Observers say the election and its aftermath could usher in a period of instability in the country with aspirations of joining Western institutions.
"Today's vote is probably a culmination of the months-long political crisis that has a good chance to drive Georgia into more instability and less prospects for development," Olesya Vartanyan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL.
"[It's] difficult to say if the ruling party will even want to demonstrate its readiness for compromise after it withdrew from the April 19 agreement that included a step-by-step plan on how to start getting out of Georgia's stagnation and regular crisis situations. Many in the opposition are also very frustrated with the lack of results," she said.
The arrest of Saakashvili, who ruled Georgia from 2004 to 2013, added extra fuel to the country's political crisis, with the ENM's Baramidze saying the situation had undermined the credibility of the elections.
The former president left the country shortly after his term ended, and in 2015 he gave up his Georgian citizenship to become governor of Ukraine's Odesa region, although he continues to be considered a leading opposition figure in Georgia.
Saakashvili was convicted in absentia on corruption and abuse of power charges in 2018 that says are politically motivated. He faces a total of nine years in prison after being found guilty of abusing his authority in two separate cases: one related to trying to cover up evidence related to the 2005 beating of an opposition lawmaker, and another relating to the killing of a Georgian banker.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on October 3 that he would personally press for Saakashvili to be returned to Ukraine.