Members of Georgia’s ruling party were in a festive mood after early results suggested it had won important victories in this weekend’s local elections, which are seen as a major test for the government.
The Central Election Commission said Sunday that votes from about 39% of districts showed the ruling Georgian Dream Party with about 49% of the total vote, followed by the main opposition United National Movement (UNM) party with 31%. Several other parties were in single digits.
But despite the ruling party’s apparent nationwide lead in the former Soviet republic, mayoral elections in the four largest cities will likely require runoffs.
The elections were overshadowed by the arrest Friday of exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili, also a founder of the UNM, upon his return to the country to spark opposition to the Georgian Dream.
“I would like to congratulate all of you. My dear people, it is a great honor for us to win for the eighth time. I want to congratulate you and every member of the Georgian Dream,” Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said when the first results were announced .
But the opposition in Georgia also had reason to celebrate. They called for early parliamentary elections after the victory in Tbilisi, although results in the capital were still too close to call Sunday morning.
The cities of Batumi, Kutaisi and Rustavi also appeared headed for a runoff, as no candidate could register an absolute majority of votes.
“The victory of the opposition, especially in Tbilisi, will pave the way for early parliamentary elections in Georgia,” said Nika Melia, UNM chairwoman and candidate for mayor in Tbilisi.
“We will have early parliamentary elections in Georgia and this victory will naturally release former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili from prison.”
Ahead of the elections, the former president appealed from prison, calling on supporters to protest and “save Georgia” by going to the polls.
His return to the country Friday to boost the opposition was his first visit since leaving in 2014.
Saakashvili was sentenced to six years in prison in his absence in a case he says is politically motivated. The current president says she will not offer him a pardon.
The political situation in Georgia has deteriorated significantly since the European Union helped broker an agreement between the two main parties last April to end the country’s political crisis.