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Georgia Holds Local Elections Runoff Vote With Ex-Leader On Hunger Strike

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili votes in elections, October 30, 2021
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili votes in elections, October 30, 2021

Polls closed on October 30 in Georgia's second round of local elections amid a political crisis in the Caucasus country with ex-President and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili on hunger strike in prison.

The vote pitted Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili's ruling Georgian Dream party candidates against those from Saakashvili's opposition United National Movement (UNM) for mayoral posts in five large cities -- the capital Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Poti, and Rustavi.

Based on exit polls from pro-government Imedi TV station, Georgian Dream claimed victory in all municipalities where its candidates faced a challenge from Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM.)

"I congratulate everyone with our victory in the second round, we won in all municipalities," Prime Minister Garibashvili said in televised remarks.

But a rival exit poll by pro-opposition Mtavari TV gave the opposite results and showed UNM was leading the polls.

UNM chairman Nika Melia, a Tbilisi mayoral hopeful, called on observers from his party to "defend votes at polling stations" and prevent falsifications as vote counting was under way.

The central election commission is expected to release official results by the morning of October 31.

Mayoral posts in 15 smaller municipalities and 42 seats in two dozen local councils were also up for grabs.

In Tbilisi, the race pitted incumbent Kakha Kaladze of Georgian Dream, who won nearly 45 percent of the vote in the first round on October 2, against ENM party chief Nika Melia, who garnered 34 percent.

The first round was overall won by the Georgian Dream -- a victory overshadowed by Saakashvili's arrest within hours of his return from eight years in self-exile abroad on October 1.

The opposition decried electoral fraud, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the ballot was marred by allegations of "intimidation, vote-buying, pressure, on candidates and voters."

The 53-year-old Saakashvili, who was president from 2004-2013, was sentenced in absentia to prison in 2018 for abuse of power and seeking to cover up evidence about the beating of an opposition member of parliament when he was president.

Saakashvili has said the charges against him are politically motivated.

Garibashvili this week urged voters to back Georgian Dream, calling Saakashvili's UNM an "anti-state and anti-national force."

In a statement released by his lawyers before polls opened, Saakashvili said the vote was "decisive for the Georgian democracy."

Pro-Western Saakashvili has been on hunger strike for 30 days to protest his imprisonment, which he says is politically motivated, and the United States has expressed concern over his condition.

The opposition, doctors, and Saakashvili’s lawyers have been calling on the ruling Georgian Dream government to move the former leader to a private hospital to receive treatment.

But Garibashvili has ruled out moving Saakashvili from prison, and on October 28 raised eyebrows when he said in a televised interview that Saakashvili has a “right to commit suicide” amid concerns about his deteriorating health.

“The law says an individual has the right to commit suicide,” Garibashvili said.

The local elections are held as the country has been in a protracted political crisis since Georgian Dream -- founded by former Prime Minister and reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who openly clashed with Saakashvili -- won parliamentary elections a year ago.

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 overall nationwide in the local elections.

But in July, Georgian Dream leader Irakli Kobakhidze annulled the so-called April 19 agreement, blaming the opposition for its failure and claiming most other key provisions had been met.

Critics have accused Georgian Dream of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.

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