Tens of thousands hit Tbilisi streets in ‘largest-ever’ rally on eve of election

Around 200,000 people have reportedly come out in support of opposition party Georgian Dream in what may become the biggest ever rally to hit Tbilisi. Georgia is set to cast votes in a parliamentary poll Monday.

The Georgian capital was strewn with blue colors Saturday as the South Caucasian country’s parliamentary campaign comes to a climax.

One of my promises has already come true: all of Georgia is standing united today,” opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvilitold tens of thousands people gathered at central Freedom Square to show their support for him. “All Georgia tells the authorities…

…leave!” responded the crowd.

Supporters of the Georgian Dream opposition political party attend a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Irakli Gedenidze)
Supporters of the Georgian Dream opposition political party attend a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Irakli Gedenidze)

The authorities cannot pretend they did not know what happens in our prisons,” continued the billionaire tycoon, referring to a recent torture scandal that led to the resignations of several top officials and left President Mikhail Saakashvili playing spin-doctor for himself at the UN General Assembly.

Reports on the rally’s turnout vary, with Russia’s RIA Novosti agency estimating the demo to be 200,000 strong, while the multinational channel MTRK MIR says 300,000 people were in attendance. MIR remarks that Tbilisi’s last most massive rally was held in 2010, and gathered around 100,000 people.

Supporters of the Georgian Dream political party shout slogans during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Supporters of the Georgian Dream political party shout slogans during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)

Tycoon-turned-politician Ivanishvili founded his public movement, Georgian Dream, in December 2011. In April 2012, it transformed into an opposition coalition, called Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia. The current election is generally viewed as a struggle between billionaire Ivanishvili, whose wealth at $6.4 billion equals nearly half of Georgia’s economic output, and President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Saakashvili’s role in Georgian history remains highly controversial. In its “Doing Business 2012” report, the World Bank named Georgia a “top reformer.” According to that assessment, the South Caucasus country, which serves as an important transit route for oil and gas to the West, showed an astounding improvement since 2005 in terms of the ease of doing business, climbing from 112th to 16th place.

Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition shout slogans at an election rally in Tbilisi September 29, 2012. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)
Supporters of the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition shout slogans at an election rally in Tbilisi September 29, 2012. (Reuters / David Mdzinarishvili)

But the opposition has little praise to spare for the leader. Nino Burdzhanadze, the ex-chairperson of the Georgian Parliament and Saakashvili’s former ally, claims that “we have less democracy today than before the revolution”, as Spiegel quotes her. Like many others, Burdzhanadze accuses the president of authoritarian dictatorship that has suppressed the opposition, while engaging the country in all-around corruption and money laundering.

Saakashvili, in his turn, says the Georgian opposition are simply Kremlin agents.

Ivanishvili has taken great pains to deny the claim. During the rally, he said he did not go to politics after some foreign powers told him so, but because he could not come to terms with the escalating poverty and injustice that are choking the country.

Saakashvili’s system must be destroyed. The fate of the country is being decided at these elections,” Ivanishvili told the rally, promising to create “a truly democratic country free of violence or fear.

Georgia′s opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the leader of the Georgian Dream political party gestures during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Georgia’s opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the leader of the Georgian Dream political party gestures during a rally in central Tbilisi, on September 29, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)

A parallel opposition demonstration was held in Georgia’s second largest city, Kutaisi. Rally organizers say tens of thousands people are there.

Ivanishvili’s party, whose platform seems to be centered on displacing the incumbent president, is expected to come out as the main rival to Saakashvili’s United National Movement.

UNM’s convention Friday gathered around 70 thousand people at a central stadium in Tbilisi. On Saturday, Saakashvili also addressed voters in the port city of Poti, stressing the upcoming election may be a turning point for the country. “A force which wants to destroy everything we have created in the last nine years is keen to grab power,” he told supporters, hinting at the coalition headed by Ivanishvili.

Georgia′s President Mikheil Saakashvili enters the podium to address a showpiece rally of his party three days before elections in central Tbilisi, on September 28, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)
Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili enters the podium to address a showpiece rally of his party three days before elections in central Tbilisi, on September 28, 2012. (AFP Photo / Vano Shlamov)

Clashes erupt as Madrid cops squelch austerity protest

Sporadic clashes have broken out in central Madrid, with twelve people reportedly injured after riot police moved in to clear the Plaza de Neptune, threatening to arrest those who would not leave.

The demo turned violent when police encircled about 300 protesters who refused to leave the square. The demonstrators chanted slogans, while some threw projectiles at police vehicles.

Twelve people have reportedly been injured as Madrid’s police split up the crowd, giving protesters the choice to either leave or face arrest. Two people have been arrested, El Pais reported.

A group of roughly 100 protesters tried to organize a sit-it, but left without incident, with police not trying to detain any of them.

The organizers of the protest have reportedly agreed to hold a meeting on Sunday to decide on the future actions of the movement.

Thousands of protesters face off police forces outside the Congress of Deputies on September 29, 2012 in Madrid, to denounce the conservative government′s deep budget cuts as the government submitted an austerity budget and said the public debt and deficit are set to rise far above earlier forecasts (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
Thousands of protesters face off police forces outside the Congress of Deputies on September 29, 2012 in Madrid, to denounce the conservative government’s deep budget cuts as the government submitted an austerity budget and said the public debt and deficit are set to rise far above earlier forecasts (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)

In Spain, demonstrators spoke out against government spending cuts, tax hikes, and the nation’s alarmingly high unemployment rate.

The protest was centered near the Spanish Parliament building in the city’s downtown district.

Eager to make known their disapproval of the current administration, the crowd let off loud whistles near Parliament and yelled, “Fire them, fire them!”, referring to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government.

Authorities were bracing themselves for the march, after similar demonstrations last week led to violence and arrests.

On Friday, Rajoy’s government presented a 2013 draft budget that will cut overall spending by 40 billion euro, freezing public employees’ salaries, cutting unemployment benefits and reducing spending for Spain’s royal family.

The Rajoy administration says the country’s austerity program will continue into next year, along with the economic recession.

More than one in every two Spaniards under the age of 24 is currently jobless, while the national unemployment rate has reached nearly 25 per cent when considering all working age groups.

Spain’s recession worsened this year, after austerity measures designed to help the country’s crippled economy hampered consumer spending.

 

 A bare breast protester lies on the street next to a placard reading "Love unites us, we are all equal, we were born free and we will die free" during a demonstration organized by Spain′s "indignant" protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
A bare breast protester lies on the street next to a placard reading “Love unites us, we are all equal, we were born free and we will die free” during a demonstration organized by Spain’s “indignant” protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)

The country’s GDP also fell 0.4 per cent from the previous quarter, according to the Madrid-based National Statistics Institute.

And the situation is unlikely to get better anytime soon – Spain’s economy is expected to shrink between two and three per cent over the next two years.

Many worry that the country will become the fourth Eurozone state to seek a full bailout – something Prime Minister Rajoy says will not happen.

However, many experts say it’s only a matter of time before the country requests one.

Madrid has already asked for help with its banks. Eurozone finance ministers have agreed to lend the country 100 billion euros to help its financial sector.

Police vans block a street leading to the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 during a demonstration at Neptuno′ square organized by Spain′s "indignant" protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
Police vans block a street leading to the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 during a demonstration at Neptuno’ square organized by Spain’s “indignant” protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis (AFP Photo / Dani Pozo)
 A protester raises his fist during a demonstration organized by Spain′s "indignant" protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)
A protester raises his fist during a demonstration organized by Spain’s “indignant” protesters, a popular movement against a political system that they say deprives ordinary Spaniards of a voice in the crisis, near the parliament building in Madrid on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

Tens of thousands rally on the streets of Lisbon

In Portugal, demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the country’s 78-billion euro bailout ahead of the announcement of the government’s 2013 draft budget, which will include new tax hikes and cuts to social programs.

The protest, which was organized by Portugal’s biggest union, came after the center-right government announced a hike in social security taxes – inciting widespread anger.

Demonstrators marched through Lisbon shouting, “Let the fight continue,” and carried banners reading “Go to hell Troika, we want our lives back.”

Portugal is currently facing its worst recession since the 1970s, with an unemployment rate of over 15 per cent.

People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government′s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government’s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
(AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
(AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government′s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)
People take part in a demonstration against the Portuguese government’s austerity policies at the Terreiro do Paco Square in Lisbon on September 29, 2012 (AFP Photo / Patricia Melo Moreira)