Tens of thousands protest in Georgia demanding snap polls

An aerial view of a crowd of Georgian opposition supporters gathered outside the parliament of Georgia in central Tbilisi, to demand the government's resignation and early parliamentary polls. In the biggest anti-government rally in years, protesters demonstrated outside the parliament building on the capital Tbilisi's main thoroughfare. — AFP

TBILSI — Tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied in Georgia on Sunday, demanding the government's resignation and early parliamentary polls after the increasingly unpopular ruling party backtracked on promised electoral reforms.

In the biggest anti-government rally in years, protesters demonstrated outside the parliament building on the capital Tbilisi's main thoroughfare. AFP journalists estimated the crowd at more than 20,000.

Demanding the government's resignation and snap parliamentary polls, the crowd waved Georgian and European Union flags, lit colored flares and held up a giant banner with the anti-Ivanishvili slogan "All Against One".

The mounting public anger heaped pressure on the ruling Georgian Dream party, led by powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, which has ruled out holding early polls.

"We demand the government step down, a provisional cabinet be appointed and early parliamentary polls be held under a proportional system," Nika Melia, one of the leaders of Georgia's main opposition force, the United National Movement party, told AFP at the rally.

"We also demand the liberation of political prisoners," said Melia, who spent time under house arrest over his role in anti-government protests in the summer and is barred from addressing rallies.

Protesters locked the parliament's gates with padlocks, saying no lawmakers would be allowed to enter the building.

The interior ministry warned in a statement that "attempts to storm or blockade administrative buildings will be immediately prevented."

Pro-opposition Mtavari TV channel aired footage of the deployment of large numbers of riot police armed with guns of a type that fire rubber bullets inside the parliament building.

Opposition parties had called for the protest after forming an unprecedented united front against Georgian Dream, whose MPs last week voted down legislation to hold parliamentary elections next year under a new proportional voting system.

The opposition accused Ivanishvili of orchestrating the bill's failure.

Protesters say the ruling party unfairly benefits from the current voting system under which it won nearly 77 percent of seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2016 despite garnering only 48.7 percent of the vote.

Those polls were denounced by opposition parties as rigged.

"We are here to put an end to Ivanishvili's oligarchic rule. His puppet government must go," one of the protesters, 66-year-old linguistics professor Mzia Todua, told AFP.

Another protester, student Kote Dzidziguri, 19, said: "We demand electoral reform so that Georgians can elect a parliament they will have trust in."

At a protest on Thursday, some 10,000 people rallied in Tbilisi, vowing to hold "permanent mass protests" until their demands for snap polls were met.

Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man, had announced "large-scale political reform" under pressure following mass street protests in June and July during which 240 people were injured in a police crackdown and two peaceful protesters — one a teenaged girl — lost an eye.

Georgian Dream, in power since 2012, has seen its popularity plummet amid widespread discontent over its failure to address economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

Critics have accused Ivanishvili, who is widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia, of persecuting political opponents, suffocating critical media, and creating a corrupt political system where his private interests dominate government decision-making.

Several opposition leaders — mainly from exiled ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement — have been jailed since Ivanishvili came to power in what rights activists have denounced as political witch-hunt.

Senior managers at the two main TV channels critical of Ivanishvili's government are facing criminal charges that they have denounced as trumped-up and aimed at silencing dissent.— AFP