Voters in Georgia went to the polls on Saturday in local elections that will have a crucial national impact, a day after the arrest of former president Mikheil Saakashvili on his return from exile.
The detention of the principal opposition leader has considerably raised the stakes in the vote, seen as a test for the ruling party Georgian Dream, increasingly unpopular in the south Caucasus nation.
"I want to ask you all to go to the elections so that not a single vote is lost," Saakashvili tweeted in English from prison on Saturday, posting a photo of a letter to his supporters. "My freedom and, more importantly, the freedom of Georgia depends entirely on your actions and fighting ability."
Before his arrest on Friday, he called on supporters via a video to protest and "save Georgia" at the weekend's elections. He also urged them to gather on Sunday along a main route through Tbilisi, the capital.
Saakashvili's attempts to rally Georgians could upend the ruling party's plans to secure dominance in Saturday's balloting for mayors and local assemblies.
The vote is widely regarded as a vote of confidence in the national government and could trigger early elections next year.
According to latest opinion polls, more than half of the electorate stated they were undecided between Georgian Dream and the main opposition party the United National Movement (UNM), which was founded by Saakashvili.
Casting his ballot on Saturday, the UNM leader Nika Melia said everyone who does not want "injustice to continue" should support the opposition with their vote.
"Those who do not want injustice to continue, those who do not want the oligarchical system to continue, those who do not like that the main basis of the government are so called criminal authorities, who at the same time have a tight partnership with state security services, those who do not want injustice to continue, will make the decision very easily," Melia told reporters.
Saakashvili: 'I risked my life to return!'
A charismatic, pro-Western reformer as much loved as loathed, Saakashvili was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013.
The 53-year-old announced his return from Ukraine to the country he left in 2013 via Facebook, saying "I risked my life and freedom to return!".
The government had warned him that he would be arrested immediately if he returned as he was wanted for "abuse of power". In 2018 he was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of contempt of court. Saakashvili argues the case against him is politically motivated.
His arrest was announced on Friday by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. According to reports in Georgian media, he is being held at Roustavi prison, near Tbilisi.
In power, Saakashvili became renowned for trying to fight Georgia's major problem with corruption. Whilst this made him popular, many Georgians thought he was too authoritarian.
“Many are asking today whether President is going to pardon Mikheil Saakashvili. The answer is one, simple and final - no and never!” the current president, Salome Zourabichvili, told the nation before they voted.
Since last year, Georgia has been plunged into a political crisis following the opposition's denunciation of massive fraud in parliamentary elections, narrowly won by the ruling party.
The local elections are being followed closely for any sign of democratic infringement by Georgian Dream in the nation well used to political instability.
In power since 2012, Georgian Dream, founded by the billionaire businessman and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili. The country's richest man, he has been accused by his critics of using criminal charges to silence his opponents as well as journalists.
Interpol has refused Tbilisi's demands to publish a "red notice" — issued for fugitives wanted either for prosecution or to serve a sentence — against Saakashvili.
EU-Georgia agreement in doubt
The situation in Georgia has significantly deteriorated since the European Union helped broker an agreement between the two main parties last April, designed to put an end to the country's political crisis.
In an opinion article for Euronews the following month entitled "Georgia's future is European", President Zourabichvili and the European Council President Charles Michel celebrated "reviving Georgia's image as a democratic anchor in the region".
But in July, Georgian Dream withdrew from the deal because United National Movement hadn't signed onto it by then. The opposition party then signed this month, just before the polls.
The agreement stipulated that snap parliamentary elections should be called in 2022 if Georgian Dream receives less than 43 percent of all proportional votes in the local elections in the country's 64 municipalities.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is leading an observer mission over Saturday's vote, concluded that parliamentary elections in October 2020 had been marred by "widespread allegations of voter pressure". Claims of fraud led the opposition to boycott the new parliament.
Critics argue the Georgian government has continued to attack judicial independence.
In its 2021 report on Georgia, Human Rights Watch cited other areas of concern including "threats to media freedom, disproportionately harsh drug policy, and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people".
In July, demonstrators called for the president and prime minister to resign following the death of a journalist who was attacked and beaten by anti-LGBT protesters.