Police in ex-Soviet Georgia on Sunday fired water cannons and tear gas on thousands of demonstrators who have vowed permanent protests until a snap vote is called as the opposition accused the ruling party of rigging tightly contested parliamentary elections.
The ruling Georgian Dream party led by billionaire ex-prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili -- which won the October 31 polls with a two-percent margin -- has flatly denied the accusations of electoral fraud.
But all of Georgia's opposition parties have refused to enter the new parliament, sparking fears of another political crisis in the Caucasus nation where elections are often followed by accusations of fraud and mass demonstrations.
Live television footage showed riot police intervening in the peaceful protest, firing tear gas and water cannons without warning, after demonstrators threatened to blockade the building of Georgia's central election commission.
Water cannons were deliberately aiming, from short distance, at journalists covering the protests, leaving a cameraman injured in an eye.
Georgia's rights ombudsperson Nino Lomjaria called on police "to stop using disproportionate force against demonstrators."
"I urge the illegal gathering's participants to refrain from illegal actions," ruling party leader Irakli Kobakhidze told a late-night press conference.
"Criminals will soon be in jail," he said, referring to opposition leaders.
On Sunday afternoon, the main thoroughfare of the capital Tbilisi turned into a sea of Georgia's red-and-white five-cross flags as some 45,000 protesters gathered outside parliament, many wearing masks.
Later in the evening, protesters marched several kilometres (miles) across the city towards the central election commission premises.
"What Georgian Dream did during the elections amounts to a coup, we will force them to call new polls," said one of the demonstrators, 33-year-old pharmacist Theona Lanchava.
In an unprecedented show of unity before the vote, the country's main opposition force, exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM), agreed with smaller opposition groups to form a coalition government if elected.
"We demand the replacement of the totally discredited electoral administration and the holding of a fresh vote," one of the UNM's leaders, Salome Samadashvili, told AFP on Sunday.
"Our protests will be permanent and will encompass all of Georgia," another UNM leader, Nika Melia, told the rally.
Several thousand opposition supporters also rallied in the Black Sea city of Batumi to call for a new vote.
- 'Failed to meet democratic standards' -
Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia has said the elections marked an "important milestone in Georgia's democratic development" and criticised the opposition for staging mass rallies during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We will not allow some power-thirsty politicians who pursue their narrow political interests to destroy the country," he said in a statement ahead of Sunday's rally.
Gakharia, who has tested positive for the virus, has been in self-isolation for a week and announced a night curfew starting Monday.
Georgia has seen a rapid daily increase in new virus cases after it lifted a lockdown aimed at containing the spread of the disease in September.
International monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote was "far from flawless" but that "fundamental freedoms were respected".
Local election observers reported numerous cases of ballot stuffing, multiple voting and doctoring of results.
"The Georgian government has failed to meet democratic standards during the elections," 27 rights groups said in a joint statement.
The United States and European Union have called for a "credible and inclusive legal process for remedying substantiated electoral violations."
- Darling of the West -
The electoral commission has yet to formalise early results that showed Georgian Dream had won 48 percent of the proportional vote, against 46 percent for opposition parties.
The proportional vote decides 120 of the 150 seats in the legislature.
With another 30 seats to be assigned in single-mandate constituencies requiring up to two rounds of voting, the final makeup of the new parliament may only become clear in late November.
Georgia became a darling of the West after Saakashvili came to power in the 2003 peaceful Rose Revolution and instituted reforms to boost democratic institutions and battle corruption.
In power since 2012, Georgian Dream has seen its popularity fall due to discontent over its failure to address economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on commitments to democracy.
Critics accuse the country's richest man Ivanishvili -- who is widely seen to be calling the shots in Georgia -- of persecuting political opponents and creating a corrupt system where private interests permeate politics.