Riot police use water cannons to disperse Georgia protesters

Irakli METREVELI
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Riot police fire water cannons to break up a crowd of protesters outside the parliament building in Tbilisi

Riot police in Georgia used water cannons on Monday to disperse anti-government protesters who have taken to the streets after the ruling party backtracked on promised electoral reforms.

Hundreds of riot police in body armour and helmets sprayed water to break up a crowd of several hundred protesters outside the parliament building in the capital Tbilisi.

Police also cleared protesters away from the city's main thoroughfare, Rustaveli Avenue, where they have blocked traffic since the last week.

Several opposition activists were detained during the police operation, Georgia's Pirveli TV channel reported.

The police crackdown came after more than 20,000 demonstrators rallied outside parliament on Sunday in the largest anti-government rally in years, urging the government to resign and calling for new legislative elections.

After the rally ended peacefully, hundreds of protesters continued to block entrances to the parliament building on Sunday night.

The demonstrators have held a series of protests after MPs from the ruling Georgian Dream party MPs voted down legislation to hold parliamentary elections next year under a new proportional voting system.

Opposition parties have accused the party's leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, of orchestrating the bill's failure.

The embassies of the United States and European Union expressed solidarity with the protesters, saying in a joint statement they "recognise the deep disappointment of a wide segment of Georgian society at the failure of parliament to pass the constitutional amendments."

"We fully support the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression," they said.

At a protest on Thursday following the failed vote on the amendments, some 10,000 people rallied in Tbilisi, vowing to press ahead with "permanent" protests until their demands for snap polls were met.

- Plummeting popularity -

Opposition parties have called the rallies after forming a rare united front against the ruling party led by oligarch Ivanishvili –- who is widely believed to be the man in charge in Georgia.

Twelve Georgian Dream lawmakers –- including two deputy parliament speakers –- have left the party in protest at the controversial vote.

The US and EU embassies said the failure to pass the legislation "increased mistrust and heightened tensions between the ruling party and other political parties and civil society."

Protesters say the ruling party unfairly benefits from the current voting system.

The Georgian Dream party won nearly 77 percent of seats in the 2016 parliamentary election despite garnering only 48.7 percent of the vote.

The opposition at the time denounced the polls as rigged.

Ivanishvili had promised "large-scale political reform" following a summer of protests that saw 240 people injured in a police crackdown.

Two peaceful protesters including a teenaged girl lost an eye at the time.

In power since 2012, the ruling party has seen its popularity plummet amid widespread discontent over economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on its commitment to democracy.

Critics accuse Ivanishvili of persecuting political opponents, suffocating critical media, and creating a corrupt political system where his private interests dominate government decision-making.