TBILISI, GEORGIA (AP) – More than 1,000 people protested outside of the Georgian president’s residence in Tbilisi on Sunday to demand that he immediately resign and hand over executive power to the speaker of parliament.
Presidential elections are due to take place in October, but this schedule in effect will give President Mikhail Saakashvili, who was elected to a second five-year term in January 2008, a sixth year in office.
On Jan. 10, opposition groups and NGOs announced that more than 1 million of Georgia’s 4.6 million citizens have signed a petition calling for Saakashvili’s resignation.
Saakashvili, who is barred by law from seeking election to a third term in office, saw his party take a beating in Georgia’s national election in October 2012, and the president’s popularity has since fallen sharply.
During Sunday’s demonstration, protesters waved anti-Saakashvili banners, handed out leaflets and encouraged newcomers to sign petitions calling for the president’s ouster. The NGO Unanimity for the Rights of Society, which has been a leader of the campaign against the president, vowed to have its members camp outside of the presidential palace for up to 10 days, if Saakashvili doesn’t resign by midnight.
Throughout his first term in office, Saakashvili pushed through measures that strengthened the executive branch, even giving the president powers to dismiss parliament.
In 2010, however, with the end of Saakashvili’s two-term presidency looming, the ruling party forced through several constitutional amendments that not only corrected the balance of power but also gave significantly more power to the prime minister, a position many assumed would be filled by a Saakashvili loyalist, given his party’s majority in parliament.
During Georgia’s parliamentary election in 2012, Saakashvili’s party was defeated by the Georgian Dream coalition led by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili. But by staying in power an extra nine months, Saakashvili could give his political allies time to regroup and battle for the presidency in October.
While Saakashvili began his first term riding on a strong anti-corruption campaign, enduring high unemployment and poverty, coupled with what many perceive as a turn toward authoritarian political tactics, have changed how many Georgians see their president.
“He built himself this huge palace while thousands of Georgians are only starting to earn themselves enough for a piece of bread,” said Temuri Tevzadze, a 45-year-old engineer who took part in Sunday’s protest. Tevzadze also accused Saakashvili of tinkering with Georgia’s constitution, leaving it riddled with inconsistencies.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Ivanishvili has refrained from calling for his rival’s immediate ouster, and most major political players in Georgia have done little to address the outcry of those who are pushing for Saakashvili’s ouster.