Georgia’s electoral authority has said preliminary results showed that the country’s governing party had won a parliamentary election – but the opposition rejected the figures and thousands of people took to the streets to protest.
With more than 99 percent of ballots counted, the Georgian Dream party had received 48.1 percent of Saturday’s vote, the Central Election Commission (CEC) said on Sunday.
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The biggest opposition alliance, led by the United National Movement (UNM) party, got 27.1 percent. Several other opposition parties managed to clear the 1 percent threshold for membership in parliament.
The governing party – founded by Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili – declared victory soon after polls closed across the former Soviet republic and four exit polls put it in first place.
“Georgia has made me a worthy choice, and that Georgian Dream founded by me is a worthy dream. Georgian voters, who would not make the wrong choice today, expressed support for worthy people,” Ivanishvili told a crowd of cheering supporters in the capital, Tbilisi.
The opposition said the results did not correspond with reality.
“We won’t accept this result and call on people to come to Rustaveli avenue at 4pm(12:00 GMT),” Nika Melia, a UNM member, told reporters after consultations with other opposition leaders on Sunday.
Waving Georgian flags, thousands demonstrators gathered outside the imposing parliament building located on the avenue.
The crowd, many wearing masks against the coronavirus, burst into applause as opposition leaders said the vote had been rigged and demanded a new election.
UNM was in talks with other opposition parties on holding a new election, Tina Bokuchava, a member of the party, was quoted by the Georgian 1TV broadcaster as saying.
“If the government refuses to hold new elections, the opposition then has to refuse to participate in the parliamentary life because this will be the Parliament staffed by forged elections rather than by expression of free will of Georgian people,” Bokuchava was quoted as saying.
David Kirtadze, another member of UNM, said: “This is not a real picture and these results don’t reflect the will of Georgian people.”
Earlier, he had tried to interrupt the head of the CEC head when she was announcing the preliminary results, and was forced by guards to leave the conference hall.
The opposition claimed it received enough votes in total to form a coalition.
More than 30 opposition parties, led by the UNM, the largest and strongest opposition force, had announced on Friday that they would not go into coalition with the governing party after the election.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from Tbilisi on Saturday, said most voters were able to cast their ballots “freely and in safety”, though there were some violent scenes between supporters of rival parties.
He added: “Georgia is likely to have a more diverse parliament, but the politicians will now have to focus on immediate challenges – soaring COVID-19 infections and a bleak outlook for the economy.”
The country’s economy has been hit hard by the spread of the coronavirus and is forecast by the government to contract by 4 percent in 2020.
The government’s popularity has waned, and opponents accuse it of mishandling the economy, selective justice, a weak foreign policy and stamping on dissent with the violent dispersal of protests.
Critics said Ivanishvili, who does not hold a government post, runs the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people from behind the scenes, an accusation denied by Georgian Dream, which has governed for two consecutive terms.
A fifth of Georgian territory is controlled by pro-Russian separatists following a short war with Russia in 2008.
Both the government and the opposition would like to see Georgia join the European Union and NATO, but such moves would be strongly resisted by Moscow. Georgian Dream also favours closer ties with Russia.