Thousands rally in ex-Soviet Georgia demanding snap polls

Tbilisi (AFP) –

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Thousands of opposition supporters rallied Sunday in ex-Soviet Georgia to demand a snap vote after the opposition accused the ruling party of rigging tightly contested parliamentary elections.

The ruling Georgian Dream party led by billionaire ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili -- which won the October 31 polls with a two-percent margin -- has flatly denied the accusations of electoral fraud.

But all of Georgia's opposition parties have refused to enter the new parliament, sparking fears of another political crisis in the Caucasus nation where elections are often followed by accusations of fraud and mass demonstrations.

The main thoroughfare of the capital Tbilisi turned into a sea of Georgia's red-and-white five-cross flags as protesters gathered outside parliament, many wearing masks against the coronavirus.

"What Georgian Dream did during the elections amounts to a coup, we will force them to call new polls," said one of the demonstrators, 33-year-old pharmacist Theona Lanchava.

Pensioner Givi Baramidze, 70, said the elections were "the last straw" for Georgian Dream and it was time "to sweep them out".

In an unprecedented show of unity before the vote, the country's main opposition force, exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), agreed with smaller opposition groups to form a coalition government if elected.

"We demand the replacement of the totally discredited electoral administration and the holding of a fresh vote," one of the UNM's leaders, Salome Samadashvili, told AFP on Sunday.

"This would allow for maintaining stability in the country," she said.

Several thousand opposition supporters also rallied in the Black Sea city of Batumi to call for a new vote.

- 'Failed to meet democratic standards' -

Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia has said the elections marked an "important milestone in Georgia's democratic development" and criticised the opposition for staging mass rallies during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We will not allow some power-thirsty politicians who pursue their narrow political interests to destroy the country," he said in a statement ahead of Sunday's rally.

Gakharia, who has tested positive for the virus, has been in self-isolation for a week and announced a night curfew starting Monday.

Georgia has seen a rapid daily increase in new virus cases after it lifted in September a lockdown aimed at containing the spread of the disease.

International monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was "far from flawless" but that "fundamental freedoms were respected".

Local election observers reported numerous cases of ballot stuffing, multiple voting and doctoring of results.

"The Georgian government has failed to meet democratic standards during the elections," 27 rights groups said in a joint statement.

The United States and European Union have called for a "credible and inclusive legal process for remedying substantiated electoral violations."

- Darling of the West -

The electoral commission has yet to formalise early results that showed Georgian Dream had won 48 percent of the proportional vote, against 46 percent for opposition parties.

The proportional vote decides 120 of the 150 seats in the legislature.

With another 30 seats to be assigned in single-mandate constituencies requiring up to two rounds of voting, the final makeup of the new parliament may only become clear in late November.

Georgia became a darling of the West after Saakashvili came to power in the 2003 peaceful Rose Revolution and instituted reforms to boost democratic institutions and battle corruption.

In power since 2012, Georgian Dream has seen its popularity fall due to discontent over its failure to address economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on commitments to democracy.

Critics accuse the country's richest man Ivanishvili -- who is widely seen to be calling the shots in Georgia -- of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system where private interests permeate politics.