An estimated 100,000 opposition supporters rallied in Georgia's capital Saturday in a show of strength days before a parliamentary election that presents the toughest challenge to the future of President Mikhail Saakashvili's government since he took office in 2004.
Many residents of the capital, Tbilisi, long ago turned against Saakashvili. They are disturbed by what they describe as his authoritarian rule, pointing to his control over parliament, the courts and the prosecutor's office.
"He created a system of oppression and covered it with the pretty facade of democracy," said Dali Dvalishvili, who attended the boisterous campaign rally. Although trained as a lawyer, the 28-year-old woman said she was unable to work in a system "where the prosecutor's office dictates everything."
Under Saakashvili, the former Soviet republic has become a U.S. ally and worked toward closer integration with NATO and the European Union. In Monday's election, the president is under pressure to prove his commitment to democracy by holding a free and fair vote.
Election has added significance
The election has added significance because it ushers in a new political system that will give greater powers to the parliament and prime minister. After Saakashvili's second and last term ends next year, the party that has a majority in parliament will have the right to name the prime minister, who will acquire many of the powers now held by the president.
Saakashvili's United National Movement, which now holds nearly 80 per cent of the seats in parliament, is up against Georgian Dream, a coalition formed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who made his fortune in Russia.
Most observers see the race as too close to call, although they give the governing party the edge.
The mood was upbeat Saturday as people of all ages gathered on Freedom Square for Ivanishvili's campaign rally. Many wore Georgian Dream T-shirts in blue, white or black.
"Saakashvili's system based on lawlessness and torture should be destroyed," Ivanishvili told the crowd.
'Saakashvili's system based on lawlessness and torture should be destroyed.' —Opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili
Saakashvili's campaign was hit hard by the release two weeks ago of shocking videos showing prisoners in a Tbilisi jail being beaten and sodomized. The government moved quickly to stem the anger, replacing cabinet ministers blamed for the abuse and arresting prison staff, but many saw the videos as illustrating the excesses of his government.
When Saakashvili took over Georgia in early 2004, it was close to being a failed state. He succeeded in wiping out the crime bosses who ruled the streets, eradicating petty corruption, restoring basic public services and enacting reforms that led to high economic growth. Poverty and unemployment rates, however, remain painfully high.
"Palaces are built, but the people live in poverty," 35-year-old Georgy Dzotsenidze, who was among the opposition supporters, said. "Not to mention the sadism, the torture in the prisons. All of this was done intentionally so that the people would be afraid."
Ivanishvili's support lies in the educated, professional and cultural classes of Tbilisi, where about a third of Georgia's 4.5 million people live. Some of them, including prominent theatre actors and directors, have benefitted directly from his largesse. Now worth about $6.4 billion, Ivanishvili says he has spent a total of $1.7 billion to help Georgia, most notably paying government officials' salaries when Saakashvili first came to power and buying patrol cars for a new police force.
Saakashvili has tried to discredit his former patron by suggesting he has ties with Georgian crime bosses now living abroad. Ivanishvili addressed the accusations on Saturday.
"Saakashvili tries to convince the population that if we win, criminals will come to power in Georgia," the opposition leader told the crowd. "This is not so. The time of organized crime bosses and criminals in Georgia is over. We will restore order based on democracy and the law."
He also countered Saakashvili's contention that he will take Georgia back under Russian domination.
"The U.S. and NATO members are our strategic allies," Ivanishvili said. "Our country will become a worthy member of the European community."