By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Tensions are high in Georgia as ballots cast for mayors and local councils across the deeply polarized South Caucasus country are being counted, amid early claims of victory by both the ruling party and the main opposition force, as well as allegations of electoral fraud.
The October 2 vote is viewed by the opposition as a referendum on the ruling Georgian Dream party. It was already set to be contentious before exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili returned on the eve of the election to rally the opposition party he founded, the United National Movement (ENM), and other opposition groups — only to be arrested within hours.
The Central Election Commission has yet to release preliminary results, but three exit polls commissioned by television stations showed Georgian Dream leading nationwide with 38.6 percent, 41 percent, and 47.6 percent of the vote. Official full preliminary results are expected on October 3.
The opposition is seeking to use the elections as leverage to demand early elections if the ruling party fails to get more than 43 percent of the vote.
In the capital, Tbilisi, one survey pointed to a first-round victory for incumbent Kakha Kaladze of Georgian Dream, while two other exit polls showed Kaladze and ENM party chief Nika Melia heading into runoffs, with one of them giving the lead to the opposition candidate.
Georgian Dream supporters gathered outside party headquarters on a central Tbilisi square after polls closed, with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili congratulating them for their “great victory.”
“Today, we finished polarization in the country, the era of hate and lies,” he said, referring to the opposition.
Meanwhile, Melia said Georgian Dream had “completely lost the capital.”
“They lost the political center,” he insisted, adding that the opposition will hold the majority of seats in the Tbilisi city council.
Hours earlier, the opposition leader accused the ruling party of “voter intimidation and vote-buying,” and urged Georgians to “be mobilized so that Georgian Dream can’t manipulate election results.”
Nongovernmental organizations monitoring the elections reported dozens of suspected cases of electoral fraud across Georgia, 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.
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 diffuse 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 Irakli 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 United National Movement refused to join the deal.
Georgian Dream was founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the reclusive billionaire who served as prime minister.
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 adds extra fuel to the country’s political crises.
The former president, who was convicted in absentia in 2018 and has lived in Ukraine in recent years, announced plans earlier this week to fly home for the vote, despite facing prison, claiming he wanted to help “save the country.”
Saakashvili published a handwritten letter on Twitter on October 2, and in several opposition media outlets, in which he asked supporters to vote for his United National Movement.
“I want to ask you all to go to the elections so that not a single vote is lost, and after that, we will have to defend the results of the referendum together,” said Saakashvili.
In a video posted on Facebook before his arrest, Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Georgia citizenship, also called on his supporters to protest following the election.
“Everyone must go to the polls and vote, and on October 3 we must fill Freedom Square (in central Tbilisi). If there are 100,000 people, no one can defeat us,” he says in the video. “You see — I risked everything — my life, freedom, everything, in order to come here. I want only one thing from you — go to the polls.”
In recent years, Saakashvili has held several top government positions in Ukraine, and was briefly the governor of the Odesa region.
He has been a Ukrainian citizen since 2015 and heads the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reform Council.
In 2018, he was sentenced absentia to a total of nine years in prison after being found guilty of abusing his authority in two separate cases related to trying to cover up evidence related to the 2005 beating of an opposition lawmaker and about the killing of a Georgian banker.