November 25, 2019 / 7:15 PM / 18 days ago

Thousands in Georgia protest to demand electoral reform

TBILISI (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters blocked entrances to parliament in Georgia’s capital on Monday to press for proportional representation and reform to an electoral system they say unfairly favors the ruling party.

Blowing vuvuzuela horns and holding placards, the demonstrators stood in front of entrances, sat on pavements and erected tents outside the parliament building which was guarded by hundreds of police officers.

Protests in the former Soviet state have been taking place for two weeks to push for a switch to fully proportional representation in an electoral system that currently also includes single-seat constituencies.

The change was scheduled for 2024, but the opposition is demanding it be brought forward, saying the rules benefit the Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012.

Almost half of current lawmakers were elected not by party lists but in single-mandate constituencies, most representing the ruling party.

Last Monday, police used water cannon to scatter protesters outside parliament, arresting 37 people. Detainees have been sentenced to terms ranging from four to 13 days in trials which the opposition called politically motivated.

“This protest will continue and will become more and more hot,” Giga Bokeria, one of the leaders of the opposition European Georgia party, told Reuters during the march.

All main opposition parties in the country of 3.7 million people, which wants to integrate more closely with the West, have joined forces for the protests.

Protesters held placards reading “Together against one!”, referring to ruling party leader and oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom critics accuse of ruling behind the scenes.

“This is unprecedented unification of the opposition that we have not seen in the last seven years, because everybody in this country understands that Ivanishvili must go and he will go,” said Tina Bokuchava, an opposition United National Movement leader.

Protesters said they would not let lawmakers in for a session on Tuesday, but officials said that would not be allowed. “If protesters violate the law, the state will act adequately,” Mamuka Mdinaradze, a lawmaker from the ruling party, told reporters.

Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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