Defiant Georgia opposition stages fresh protest despite crackdown

Tbilisi (AFP) –


Up to 20,000 opposition supporters rallied in Georgia on Monday, stepping up pressure on the increasingly unpopular ruling party, despite a police crackdown and the arrests of protesters last week.

Waving Georgian and European Union flags, and shouting "Resign!" protesters marched on the capital Tbilisi's main thoroughfare before gathering outside the parliament building.

Demanding the government's resignation and snap parliamentary polls, they blocked entrances to the building, vowing to prevent lawmakers from entering parliament where a plenary session is set to be held on Tuesday.

The protesters have held a series of mass demonstrations after MPs from the ruling Georgian Dream party on November 14 voted down legislation to hold parliamentary elections next year under a new proportional voting system.

Opposition parties called the rallies after forming a rare united front against Georgian Dream led by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom they accuse of orchestrating the bill’s failure.

"The Georgian people and the entire opposition spectrum are trying to force the ruling party to introduce a fair electoral system in the country," leader of opposition Republican Party, Levan Berdzenishvili, told AFP at the rally.

"Mass protests will continue until our demands are met," he added.

- Rejected compromise -

Protesters say that the current voting system unfairly favours the ruling party, which won nearly 77 percent of seats in the 2016 parliamentary election despite garnering only 48.7 percent of the vote.

Georgian Dream has ruled out early polls and on Monday rejected the opposition's new compromise initiative of legislative amendments that would create a level playing field for all the political forces in the tiny Black Sea nation.

Last Monday, riot police used water cannons to disperse protesters and arrested several dozen people outside the parliament building.

Ten demonstrators have been jailed for terms ranging from four to 13 days for "disobeying police orders".

Georgia's public defender said at the time that the prosecution of the peaceful protesters "failed to meet minimum judicial standards."

In a joint statement last week, the embassies of the United States and European Union criticised Georgian Dream's failure to introduce the electoral reform and expressed solidarity with the protesters.

Ivanishvili had promised "large-scale political reform" following a summer of protests that saw 240 people injured in a police crackdown.

Two protesters including a teenaged girl lost an eye.

In power since 2012, the ruling party has seen its popularity plummet amid widespread discontent over economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

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