Tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallied today across Georgia’s capital Tbilisi to protest against what they denounced as massive vote fraud that helped Mikhail Saakashvili win his second presidential term.
Wearing opposition trademark white scarves and chanting anti-Saakashvili slogans, protesters gathered in central Tbilisi to demand a recount of the January 5 election. Organisers said about 100,000 turned out.
Final official results released on Sunday said Mr Saakashvili won with 53.47% of the vote, while main opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze scored 25.67%.
Mr Gachechiladze and his supporters denounced the official count as a sham, saying it reflected a massive official effort to rig the vote. They said officials responsible for ballot tinkering must be prosecuted and a run-off involving Mr Saakashvili and Mr Gachechiladze be held.
“Georgia doesn’t have a legitimate president,” Mr Gachechiladze said at the rally. “If we stand together, we will win.”
He and other opposition leaders also demanded regular access to state television, which has focused on covering Mr Saakashvili and his allies.
“Misha, we have come,” shouted Mr Gachechiladze, calling the president by his short name, and the massive crowd repeated the chant.
The observer mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the main trans-Atlantic security and rights organisation, gave Saturday’s election a mixed assessment.
It called the vote a “triumphant step” for democracy in Georgia, but pointed to an array of violations. Russia, which vies with the West for influence in Georgia, sharply criticised the vote.
The controversy over the vote raised fears of instability in the ex-Soviet republic, which sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and where the US and Russia are vying for influence.
Mr Saakashvili, 40, was the hero of the 2003 mass protests dubbed the Rose Revolution, which ousted his predecessor and catapulted him to the presidency.
He has helped transform Georgia into a country with a growing economy and aspirations of joining the European Union and Nato, cultivating close ties with the US and seeking to decrease Russia’s influence. But his popularity has plunged amid accusations of authoritarianism.
A brutal police crackdown on an opposition rally in Tbilisi on November 7 provoked widespread public anger and drew harsh criticism from Western governments. Mr Saakashvili called the early presidential vote to assuage tensions.
“The November 7 police action against peaceful civilians was outrageous, and official fraud in the presidential vote was disgusting,” said Irina Berishvili, a 52-year-old literature expert who attended today’s protest.
The opposition said that it had been deprived of fair access to television during the election campaign and pointed at what it said was evidence of widespread official falsification of the vote. It claimed that Mr Saakashvili in fact fell far short of the outright majority and must face a run-off with Mr Gachechiladze.
Zviad Dzidziguri, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, said the opposition alliance would stage regular protests outside state television and other official buildings to raise the heat on Mr Saakashvili.
“We will seek to achieve our goals by exclusively peaceful methods,” he said at the rally. “We will win, because we defend the truth.”
Opposition leaders accused Mr Saakashvili of forcing prominent businessmen to support his rule and deny financial assistance to the opposition. “Many businessmen in Georgia are practically Saakashvili’s slaves,” Mr Dzidziguri said.