July 13, 2014 / 4:58 PM / 5 years ago

Georgia's ruling party sweeps to victory in local election runoffs

TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition has won a string of local election runoffs, cementing its control of local councils which had been the last powerbase of former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s party.

David Narmania, a mayoral candidate from Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, leaves a polling station with wife Tinatin and 5-year-old son Koko during the second round of the local election in Tbilisi, July 12, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

Georgian Dream candidates led in all 21 constituencies where runoffs of mayoral and municipality elections were held on Saturday, according to preliminary results released on Sunday.

The party’s mayoral candidates won in the eight biggest cities, including the capital Tbilisi.

Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) lost a national election two years ago and his presidential term ended in November last year.

Georgian Dream has since tightened its grip on power in the South Caucasus country, which is on the route of pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to world markets.

In rest of the 46 municipalities and four self-governed cities which went to the polls on June 15, Georgian Dream candidates won outright victories and took control of more than 50 percent of seats.

The coalition government, initially headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, came to power in 2012.

In November, when Georgian Dream’s Georgy Margvelashvili was elected president, Ivanishvili stepped down for his ally Irakly Garibashvili to take over the more powerful role of prime minister.

Mayors have considerable influence in the former Soviet republic of 4.5 million, especially in the capital.

Preliminary results in Tbilisi from the Central Election Commission showed Georgian Dream’s mayoral candidate David Narmania on 72.5 percent and his competitor, Nika Melia of UNM, on 27.5 percent.

Georgian election observers have said that although there were technical flaws and procedural irregularities during voting, the violations had no effect on the outcome of the election despite a heated and occasionally violent campaign.

Voter turnout in the second round was 36 percent, down from 43 percent in the first round.

The opposition UNM said the elections had been marred by irregularities and an environment of intimidation. The party’s election campaign manager Gigi Ugulava, Tbilisi’s mayor from 2010 until last December, was arrested and charged with misspending public funds.

“I cannot congratulate a candidate for whose victory it became necessary to arrest a former mayor of the capital city,” Melia said.

Ugulava was arrested just days after the first round and court decided that he must stay in detention for up to nine months until his trial.

Dozens of ex-officials including a former prime minister have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power and corruption since Georgia’s new government took office.

Western countries have aired concerns that the government has used selective justice against opponents in Georgia, which fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

The authorities deny that the prosecution of former officials is political and promise fair trials.

Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Rosalind Russell

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