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Georgian opposition calls for protest, decries vote fraud

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People wearing protective masks stand at a polling station in Tbilisi on October 30, 2021. (Photo: Agence France-Presse)
TBILISI — Georgia’s opposition called for a protest Sunday to denounce alleged fraud in local election runoffs won by the ruling party with the Caucasus country’s leading government critic on hunger strike in jail.اضافة اعلان

The former Soviet republic has been gripped by political crisis since parliamentary elections in 2020, exacerbated by the jailing this month of Mikheil Saakashvili, a Western darling who was Georgia’s president from 2004-2013, after returning from exile.

The pro-Western reformer has refused food for 31 days to protest his imprisonment, which he says is politically motivated, and the United States has voiced concern over his condition.

On Sunday, the election commission said the ruling Georgian Dream party won narrowly in all but one municipality where its candidates had faced a challenge by Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in local election runoffs.

“I congratulate everyone for our victory in the second round. We won in all municipalities,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said in televised remarks.
But the UNM-led opposition coalition said it would not recognize the results, accusing Georgian Dream of “stealing elections.”

After the first round on October 2, Georgian Dream had led the local elections in party lists, while UNM mayoral hopefuls were ahead in several large cities.
“Elections are no more in this country,” UNM chairman and Tbilisi mayoral hopeful Nika Melia told journalists.

“Compatriots, you who share the values of European democracy, prepare for an uncompromising struggle,” he added.

“The struggle will be difficult, but it will not end until it’s possible to hold free and fair elections in this country.”

He later announced a protest outside parliament beginning Sunday 1300 GMT and said the opposition would announce its next steps.

‘Undue advantage’ 

On Sunday, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the elections were “technically well run.”

But they reiterated concerns after the first round over alleged “intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters.”

“The ruling party again enjoyed an undue advantage,” they said in a statement, referring to state-allocated resources.

The US embassy had previously expressed “doubts about the overall fairness” of the vote, while the Council of Europe rights watchdog said the first round was “a lost opportunity for local democracy in Georgia.”

Saakashvili’s jailing further deepened the crisis following last year’s parliamentary elections narrowly won by the ruling party and also branded fraudulent by the opposition.

In the largest anti-government demonstration in a decade, tens of thousands flooded onto the streets in Tbilisi on October 14 demanding his release.

Doctors have said Saakashvili faces an imminent risk of fatal health complications as he has an underlying blood disorder that makes hunger strike particularly dangerous.

But Georgia’s health ministry has rejected their recommendation to hospitalize Saakashvili.

Garibashvili has said the former president will be transferred “if need be” to a prison medical facility, which — according to the country’s rights ombudsperson — fails to meet hospitalization criteria defined by medics.
The prime minister sparked an uproar recently saying Saakashvili “has the right to commit suicide” and that the government had been forced to arrest him because he refused to quit politics.

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

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