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Thousands rally in Georgia as ruling party backtracks on reforms

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Tbilisi (AFP)

Thousands of opposition supporters demonstrated on the streets of Georgia on Thursday after the ruling party failed to push through promised electoral reforms.

Protesters began gathering outside the parliament in central Tbilisi minutes after lawmakers voted down the legislation and blocked traffic on the city's main thoroughfare.

In the evening, their ranks grew to some 10,000 in peaceful protests with a heavy police presence, AFP journalists saw.

The protests came after the parliament dominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party failed to pass legislation to hold parliamentary elections next year under a new proportional voting system.

Opposition parties accused the party's leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, of orchestrating the bill's failure.

Protesters say the current voting system favours the increasingly unpopular ruling party.

Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man, had announced "large-scale political reform" under pressure following mass street protests in June.

Demonstrators on Thursday vowed to hold permanent protests until early parliamentary polls are held under the proposed proportional system.

- United opposition -

Leaders of almost all the opposition parties on Thursday held unprecedented talks, promising to set aside their differences and form a united front against Georgian Dream.

"The holding of snap parliamentary polls is the joint demand of Georgia's entire political spectrum," Tina Bokuchava, one of the leaders of Georgia's main opposition force, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement party, said after the talks.

"This goal will be achieved through a mass protest movement," she told AFP.

Another opposition MP, Irma Inashvili of the Alliance of Patriots anti-Western party, called on all opposition parties to take to the streets, saying Georgian Dream "must be ousted from power."

Parliament Speaker Archil Talakvadze, a member of Georgian Dream, ruled out early polls, saying there was "no constitutional grounds at the moment to consider such a possibility."

"We urge all the political parties to engage in constructive political dialogue in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for next October," he told AFP.

Several Georgian Dream MPs left the party in protest at the vote.

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 of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt political system where private interests dominate decision-making processes.

In June and July, tens of thousands took to streets in Tbilisi and 240 people were injured during a violent police crackdown. Two peaceful protesters lost an eye, including a teenage girl.

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