Members of the Georgian opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), have voted to replace party head Nika Melia with Levan Khabeishvili in a victory for the pro-Saakashvili faction within the party.
Following two days of voting on Monday, the party announced that Khabeishvili had soundly trounced Melia, winning 53% of the vote compared to Melia’s 40%.
The vote was seen as key in deciding the future of Georgia’s largest opposition party. Since becoming chair in December 2020, Melia had attempted to move the party away from its past; Khabeishvili ran his campaign on the need to do more to secure the release of former president and party founder Mikheil Saakashvili from prison.
[Read more on OC Media: UNM leadership contender threatens to break Saakashvili out of jail]
Back in 2020, Melia defeated Saakashvili-favourite Levan Varshalomidze and has since retained strained relations with the former president.
The issue of helping Saakashvili, who remains hospitalised in a Tbilisi clinic and faces at least five years in prison, has remained the central issue for many UNM supporters since the former president arrived in Georgia in September 2021.
The UNM agreed to hold interim internal party elections after criticism of Melia’s perceived failure to do enough to free Saakashvili culminated in November.
During the campaign, Melia railed against ‘informal influences’ within the party. He accused Ivane Merabishvili and Davit Kezerashvili — former ministers of interior and defence and close allies of Saakashvili during the UNM’s time in power — of being behind Khabeishvili.
Earlier this month, Melia also accused Merabishvili and Kezerashvili of leaking an audio recording in which he appears to be heard cursing Saakashvili, something that frustrated die-hard Saakashvili supporters within the party.
While both candidates vowed to respect the wishes of the party supporters if they were defeated, tensions ran high during the campaign, especially since January, when Melia and Khabeisvhili even failed to hold a joint rally in support of Saakashvili.
The UNM said that over 41,000 people cast their votes online over the weekend of almost 50,000 people who registered for the party elections. The membership system allowed anyone claiming to be a supporter to register to vote, though they were required to submit a link to their Facebook profile to be vetted by the party.
Two other candidates took part in the election, both winning around 4%. One was Nona Mamulashvili, who was recruited by Melia two years ago as part of a ‘rejuvenated’ UNM team. The fourth candidate was Giorgi Mumladze.