Georgia ruling party faces test in municipal elections

TBILISI: Ex-Soviet Georgia voted in municipal polls Sunday that look set to see the ruling Georgian Dream coalition tighten its grip on power as voters reaffirm the country’s pro-Western course ahead of the signing of a key pact with the EU later this month. 
The vote is the first test of the coalition’s popularity since billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili stepped down as premier of the tiny Caucasus country in favour of inexperienced ally Irakli Garibashvili last year. Recent opinion polls show Georgian Dream far ahead with the United National Movement (UNM) party of former president Mikheil Saakashvili set to come second in a venomous campaign that has been marred by allegations of intimidation.
Prime Minister Garibashvili, 31, told AFP in an e-mail that his government was “firmly committed to conducting truly democratic elections.” The opposition hopes to capitalise on the growing public discontent over the government’s failure to deliver on populist promises. Prosecutors have launched a probe into several cases of reported pressure on opposition candidates to withdraw from the race and the United States embassy said last week that it was “increasingly concerned” over campaign incidents.
Since Georgian Dream won power in 2012 a slew of leading allies of Saakashvili — who is currently in self-imposed exile in the US — have been investigated and some jailed, prompting Western concerns over a possible political witch hunt. Ivanishvili — Georgia’s richest man with an estimated fortune of some $5.2 billion — is still believed to wield massive influence over the government. Both of the frontrunners remain strongly committed to keeping the mountainous republic of some 4.5 million on a firmly pro-Western track with Tbilisi set to pen an association deal with the European Union later this month. The Georgian Dream government has promised to normalise ties with Russia — with which Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 over the separatist region of South Ossetia — but so far has made little progress. Mayoral offices in 12 cities and 2,084 seats in 71 local councils across the country are up for grabs in Sunday’s race between 24 political parties and blocs. 

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