Georgian Dream has withdrawn Merab Topchishvili (pictured) from the election for gamgebeli in Marneuli. (Interpressnews.)

TBILISI, DFWatch–Georgian Dream coalition on Thursday withdrew its candidate for gamgebeli in Marneuli in Sunday’s local election, explaining that it was necessary in order to avoid making it into a purely ethnic vote.

The National Movement is running with an Azeri businessman who is popular in the town, which lies 30 km south of the capital and where 83 percent of the population are ethnic Azeris.

Locals DF Watch have spoken to say the UNM’s Akmamed Imamkuliev is considered strong in Marneuli. Until now, he looked likely to win the race for gamgebeli, or head of municipality, against Georgian Dream’s candidate, Merab Topchishvili, who is ethnic Georgian.

But on Thursday, the governing coalition decided to withdraw Topchishvili’s candidacy, to avoid opposition parties provoking confrontation along ethnic lines and escalate the situation. In May, there was a large street fight in another Azeri populated village, Gardabani, involving hundreds of people. A report earlier by DF Watch indicated that it was sparked by ethnic differences.

Apart from UNM’s Imamkuliev there are two other Azeri candidates: Shamil Akhundovi for the non-parliamentary opposition of Kakha Kukava and Pikria Chikhradze, and Rashid Mamedov, from Nino Burjanadze’s party United Opposition.

As reported earlier by DF Watch, it is a persistent problem that ethnic minorities have little or no access to political parties and have poor mastery of the official state language. Georgian Dream said withdrawing Topchishvili from the election would promote Azeri candidates.

Another reason the Georgian Dream coalition gave was to end the practice of the government foisting its own candidate on the non-Georgian population without taking their opinion into account. Now this has changed, the coalition said.

“In a sign that state interests, public consent and raising political culture in the country is major thing for our government, we are create a precedent that the government withdraws its candidate in favor of opposition candidates,” the statement reads.

But a spokesperson for the National Movement says they think the government withdrew from the race to avoid an election loss in Marneuli, because they knew that the UNM candidate is strong there. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has said that the coalition wants to win in all regions.

The UNM’s narrative is that this meant that the government would do anything in order to disrupt other parties from winning, including blocking their candidacies. The party claims this was the reason district election officials canceled Imamkuliev’s candidacy on June 5, a decision later upheld by Central Election Commission (CEC), on the basis that he didn’t comply with the requirement of having lived in Georgia for the last two years.

Imamkuliev claimed that he used to leave only for few days due to business issues, but considering that he is a businessman he mainly lived in Georgia. A few days ago, Tbilisi City Court struck down CEC’s decision and restored Imamkuliev as a candidate.

Khatuna Gogorishvili, UNM member, claimed the statement by Georgian Dream is part of a PR campaign. She said the government tried all methods to interrupt their candidate in Marneuli from conducting a normal campaign, but failed, so decided to act like it is caring for the interests of the population.

Eka Azarashvili, spokesperson for CEC said on Friday that despite Georgian Dream’s decision, Topchishvili’s name will remain on the voting-papers because the deadline for withdrawing candidates has passed and the voting-papers are already printed.