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Georgia ruling party, opposition stage rival rallies ahead of polls

ZUGDIDI, Georgia: People hold banners and wave flags during a rally in the city of Zugdidi, about 300 km from the capital Tbilisi, yesterday, to demand the release from jail of their ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili. – AFP

TBILISI: Georgia’s ruling party and the opposition on Wednesday staged rival rallies ahead of local elections with the Caucasus country’s primary government critic Mikheil Saakashvili on hunger strike in jail. Second round runoffs on Saturday will see candidates from the majority Georgian Dream party and the opposition United National Movement (UNM) compete for mayoral posts in major cities.

Georgian Dream said it had bussed supporters from across the country for its rally on Freedom square in the capital Tbilisi. The independent Pirveli TV station said state employees had been forced to attend the gathering that drew tens of thousands, according to an AFP estimate.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili urged voters to back Georgian Dream tomorrow, calling opposition leader Saakashvili’s UNM an “anti-state and anti-national force”. UNM later held its own campaign rally in the western city of Zugdidi, where a party leader, Ana Tsitlidze, told several thousand supporters they would “prevail in our struggle for a truly democratic, European Georgia.” “Our struggle will not end until Georgia and Mikheil Saakashvili are set free,” she said.

Saakashvili health concerns
Saakashvili, Georgia’s president from 2004-2013, was arrested and imprisoned October 1, days after he secretly returned from exile in Ukraine. In the largest anti-government demonstration in a decade, tens of thousands flooded onto the streets in Tbilisi two weeks later demanding his release.

The flamboyant pro-Western reformer has been on hunger strike for nearly four weeks to protest the ruling he says is politically motivated. Doctors have expressed concerns over the risk of irreversible damage to his health, but Georgia’s health ministry has rejected their call to hospitalise Saakashvili.

He is reported to have received blood transfusions in recent days following dips in his vital signs, prompting United States Ambassador Kelly Degnan to express concerns Wednesday in televised remarks. Saakashvili on Wednesday refused medical help to protest restrictions on his communications with lawyers.

Prime Minister Garibashvili sparked an uproar recently saying the government had to arrest Saakashvili because he had refused to quit politics. Saakashvili’s jailing deepened a political crisis in Georgia stemming from last year’s parliamentary elections narrowly won by the ruling party and branded fraudulent by the opposition.

On October 2, Georgian Dream led the local elections’ first round in the party lists, while UNM mayoral hopefuls were ahead of ruling party candidates in a number of big cities, where runoffs are to be held. The opposition decried electoral fraud in those polls, while observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the ballot was marred by allegations of “intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters”. Critics have accused Georgian Dream of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists. – AFP


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