TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — An estimated 100,000 opposition supporters thronged the center of Georgia's capital on Saturday in a show of strength days ahead of a parliamentary election that presents the toughest challenge to the future of Mikhail Saakashvili's government since he became president nearly nine years ago.
The capital, Tbilisi, where a third of Georgia's population lives, long ago turned against Saakashvili. Many people here 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.
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 percent 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 on Saturday as people of all ages gathered on Freedom Square for Ivanishvili's giant 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 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.
Lynn Berry contributed to this report.