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Thousands rally ahead of Georgian election

Tens of thousands of Georgians gathered at an opposition rally in the capital of Tbilisi on the final campaign day before Monday's parliamentary elections. The ruling party also staged a rival mass event.

Huge crowds assembled in Tbilisi's Freedom Square on Saturday to express support for billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose opposition Georgian Dream coalition is looking to unseat President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party.

"Saakashvili's system must be destroyed," said Ivanishvili. "The fate of the country is being decided at these elections."

He added that the current government's "days are numbered," saying "the day of a new government is coming."

The energetic affair ended with a performance by Ivanishvili's rapper son Bera, who performed the coalition's pop anthem as hundreds of blue Georgian Dream balloons were released into the air.

His supporters held a simultaneous rally in Georgia's second-largest city, Kutaisi, which also drew thousands.

Saakashvili rallies

Saakashvili staged a rally of his own on Saturday, gathering thousands of supporters in the Black Sea resort city of Batumi.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, center, with his supporters, sings a national Anthem during a campaign rally for his United National Movement in Tbilisi, Georgia, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. (Photo:Shakh Aivazov/AP/dapd)

President Saakashvili drew 60,000 supporters at his Tbilisi rally on Friday

"My friends, we need your help so that nobody can stop the miracle we are all creating together in Georgia," he told the crowd.

Saakashvili also staged an event in Tbilisi on Friday that drew 60,000 supporters.

His supporters say that Monday's election could determine whether the country moves closer to Russia or remains an ardent US ally. Georgia is an important transport route for oil and gas to the West.

Criticism of Saakashvili

Opponents of Saakashvili have accused the 44-year-old leader of monopolizing power and criticized his decision to lead his country into a disastrous, five-day war with Russia in 2008. Georgia lost one fifth of its territory in that war.

He has also been accused of intimidating Ivanishvili's supporters. Opposition members claim police arrested dozens of government opponents during demonstrations.

The election season has been tainted by the recent mass protests against police brutality in prisons. Video footage released earlier this month showed police officers torturing a Tbilisi prison detainee. Several senior officials, including the interior minister, have resigned, while 16 prison officials have been detained.

Monday's election is expected to bring major changes to Georgia. Its parliament and prime minister are set to take on more powers, while the role of the president will be reduced under constitutional changes that come into force after Saakashvili's two-term rule ends in 2013.

dr/tm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)