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Georgia ruling party wins local election after arrest of ex-president

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By Reuters

MOSCOW -Georgia’s ruling party won a commanding lead in a municipal election held a day after the arrest of the main opposition party’s founder, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, during a months-long political crisis. [nL8N2QX43A]

The ruling Georgian Dream party had 46.7% of the votes to 30.7% for the United National Movement, founded by Saakashvili, according to results released on Sunday by the Election Administration of Georgia with of 99.97% of the votes counted.

Georgia, a country of around 3.9 million people with a history of tumultuous politics, has been suffering from a political standoff since a disputed election last year, which prompted the main opposition party to boycott the parliament.

Georgian Dream is likely to be buoyed by its result in the local vote, which was higher than a threshold set under an agreement brokered the EU under which it had agreed to hold a new parliamentary election if it won less than 43%.

That agreement had already unravelled after the ruling party pulled out, but political analysts had said a failure by Georgian Dream to beat the threshold could have inspired more demonstrations by the opposition.

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 Zourabichvili was quoted as saying by Russia’s TASS news agency.

The vote was overshadowed by the arrest on the eve of the election of Saakashvili, president from 2008-2013, who had been living in exile and was convicted in absentia 2018 of abuse of office.

The authorities said they had warned him he would be arrested if he returned. In a statement released on the day of the election, he blamed his arrest on court decisions manufactured by his old foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Georgia’s domestic politics have been dominated for decades by accusations of Russian meddling in its affairs. Saakashvili was president in 2008, when Russia launched a military intervention. The Kremlin said on Friday that questions about Saakashvili’s arrest were outside its competence.

Saakashvili holds a passport issued by Ukraine, where he served as a regional governor in 2015-2016. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Sunday he would engage personally in trying to return Saakashvili back to Ukraine.

Zourabichvili said she would not pardon him and accused him of deliberately trying to destabilise the country.