Georgian opposition vows ‘biggest ever’ protests, decries vote fraud

Georgian opposition supporters attend a protest rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, 31 October 2021. Georgian opposition protest against the results of the Central Elections Commission of the second tour of the local elections. [EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE]

Georgia’s opposition parties on Sunday (31 October) announced plans for a mass anti-government protest rally next weekend, denouncing as fraudulent local election runoffs won by the ruling party.

The former Soviet republic has been gripped by political crisis since parliamentary elections in 2020, exacerbated by the jailing this month of leading government critic Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president from 2004-2013, after returning from exile.

Saakashvili has refused food for 31 days to protest his imprisonment, which he says is politically motivated, and the United States has voiced concern over his condition.

Georgia medics recommend hospitalisation for hunger-striking Saakashvili

Georgia’s jailed ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili on Wednesday (20 October) vowed to keep refusing food in prison after doctors recommended that he be hospitalised.

On Sunday, the election commission said the ruling Georgian Dream party won narrowly in all but one municipality where its candidates had faced a challenge by Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in local election runoffs.

“I congratulate everyone for our victory in the second round. We won in all municipalities,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said in televised remarks.

But the UNM-led opposition coalition said it would not recognise the results, accusing Georgian Dream of “stealing elections.”

Later in the evening, opposition leaders addressed some 1,500 supporters gathered outside parliament, saying they would travel across Georgia in the coming days to galvanise a mass protest movement against the Georgian Dream government.

UNM chairman and Tbilisi mayoral hopeful Nika Melia announced the “biggest-ever protest rally” in central Tbilisi in a week’s time.

“The elections were rigged, we do not recognise its results,” he said. “We will fight for justice. We will not retreat.”

‘Undue advantage’

On Sunday, observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the elections were “technically well run”.

But they reiterated concerns voiced after the first round vote over alleged “intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters”.

“The ruling party again enjoyed an undue advantage,” they said in a statement, referring to state-allocated resources.

The US embassy had previously expressed “doubts about the overall fairness” of the vote, while the Council of Europe rights watchdog said the first round was “a lost opportunity for local democracy in Georgia.”

Saakashvili’s jailing further deepened the crisis following last year’s parliamentary elections which were narrowly won by the ruling party but also branded fraudulent by the opposition.

In the largest anti-government demonstration in a decade, tens of thousands flooded onto the streets in Tbilisi on 14 October demanding his release.

Doctors have said Saakashvili faces an imminent risk of death as he has an underlying blood disorder that makes his hunger strike particularly dangerous.

But Georgia’s health ministry has rejected their recommendation to hospitalise Saakashvili.

Garibashvili has said the former president will be transferred “if need be” to a prison medical facility, which — according to the country’s rights ombudsperson – fails to meet hospitalisation criteria defined by medics.

The prime minister sparked an uproar recently by saying that Saakashvili “has the right to commit suicide” and that the government had been forced to arrest him because he refused to quit politics.

Critics have accused Georgian Dream of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.

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