Thousands of Georgians have staged a mass protest over the results of the country’s presidential runoff vote, alleging widespread electoral fraud and demanding snap parliamentary elections.
About 25,000 opposition supporters demonstrated in the capital, Tbilisi, on Sunday, days after the former Soviet nation elected its first woman president, Salome Zurabishvili.
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An independent candidate backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, Zurabishvili claimed almost 60 percent of the vote to beat the opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze on Wednesday.
But opposition leaders including Vashadze have refused to accept the result, pointing to instances of alleged vote-buying, voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing in the election’s second round.
Holding Georgian and EU flags, protesters packed Rustaveli Avenue in front of the parliament building in the centre of the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Sunday.
The former reformist president Mikheil Saakashvili addressed the huge crowd by video link from the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, where he lives in self-imposed exile.
“Georgia’s future is being born on this square today,” said Saakashvili, accused by the authorities of abuse of power.
“We will fight peacefully but we will never give up,” he said, flashing the victory sign at the end of his speech.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the protest in Tbilisi, said: “Georgia’s main opposition party and its coalition partner are holding this rally to send a message to the government.”
Wednesday’s vote was the small South Caucasus nation’s last direct leadership poll as it transitions to a parliamentary form of governance.
Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat, has said her election was a step forward for women and a move closer to Europe.
“Georgia does not have a president now,” her rival Vashadze, a former foreign minister, said to roaring applause from the protesters.
He said the results of the “stolen election” should be annulled and snap parliamentary elections held.
He urged the authorities to overhaul the country’s electoral system and by December 16 establish a working group to hold talks with the opposition.
“People took to the streets today because the elections were rigged,” Gia Mgeladze, a 20-year-old protester, told the AFP news agency.
Many protesters accused business tycoon and leader of the Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, of stealing people’s votes.
In what critics derided as “vote-buying” before the election, Ivanishvili promised the government would drastically increase social spending and pledged to spend his own money to write off the bank loans of more than 600,000 people.
The vote was seen as a test of Georgia’s democratic credentials as it seeks European Union and NATO membership.
Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election was competitive but they also raised concerns about misuse of administrative resources.
Tensions increased in advance of the second round, as the opposition accused the government of voter intimidation and claimed that ruling party activists had attacked Vashadze’s campaign staff.
Zurabishvili, in turn, said she and her children had received death threats from people affiliated with Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
“These monitoring groups which oversaw the election believe that it was both sides, not just the government, but the opposition that engaged in hate speech … rather than focus on important platform issues,” said Al Jazeera’s Forestier-Walker.
“And that has undermined faith in the democratic process here.”