Polls closed Saturday in Georgian municipal elections, a day after the dramatic arrest of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who called from police custody for the country's "peaceful transition to a genuine democracy."
The detention on Friday of Georgia's foremost opposition figure upon his return from exile raised the stakes in the polls seen as a key test for the increasingly unpopular Georgian Dream ruling party.
In comments to AFP through a representative, who visited him in prison on Saturday, Saakashvili said, "Georgia needs a peaceful transition towards a genuine democracy where political opponents are not locked up on falsified charges or forced into exile."
"I am not seeking any political office. I am just determined to fight to the end against the oligarchic rule which kills Georgian democracy," he said.
He was likely referring to former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a powerful oligarch and ruling party founder who is widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia despite holding no political office.
The founder of Georgia's main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), and president from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili, 53, said Friday that he had returned from Ukraine, where he heads a Ukrainian government agency steering reforms.
The flamboyant pro-Western reformer, who in 2003 led the peaceful "Rose Revolution" that ousted Communist-era elites and still commands a fiercely loyal following, was detained shortly after his arrival in connection with a 2018 conviction in absentia on abuse-of-office charges.
He has denied wrongdoing and denounced his sentence of six years in jail as politically motivated. Following his arrest, he went on a hunger strike, Georgia's rights ombudsperson said.
'We are all equal'
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili defended the decision to detain Saakashvili, saying that "we are all equal before the law, political leaders and ordinary citizens."
Both the ruling party and the opposition said after polls closed at 1600 GMT that they were set to win the elections.
Turnout stood at 41% by 5 p.m. (1300 GMT), said the central election commission, which was expected to start releasing vote results on Sunday.
Standing in a long queue of voters outside a polling station in central Tbilisi on Saturday afternoon, painter Luka Samushia, 27, said: "It will be difficult for the government to falsify vote results if the turnout is high.
"They must go. They can't jail Saakashvili and remain in power," he added.
The municipal elections were being watched inside and outside Georgia for signs of the ruling party backsliding on democracy.
Critics have accused Georgian Dream — in power since 2012 — of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists. Interpol turned down requests from Tbilisi to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.
Opposition parties decried widespread fraud and refused to take their seats after last October's parliamentary elections, which Georgian Dream won narrowly.
They have since staged mass protests, demanding snap polls.
The EU mediated an interparty agreement in May, under which Georgian Dream pledged to hold a snap parliamentary vote if it won less than 43% in Saturday's local elections.
The ruling party withdrew from the pact in July, but the European Union and the United States urged the EU-aspirant country's government to implement the agreement that envisages sweeping political and judiciary reforms. Saakashvili insists the deal remains in place.
With concerns mounting in the West over the ruling party's democratic credentials, the United States has hinted at possible sanctions against Georgian Dream officials.