Over 20,000 Rally Against Saakashvili

APAn opposition supporter shouting during a rally of over 20,000 people at the parliament building in Tbilisi on Friday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- More than 20,000 opposition supporters rallied in Georgia's capital on Friday, trying to increase pressure on President Mikheil Saakashvili before parliamentary elections expected in May.

The demonstrators gathered in Tbilisi in front of the parliament building. They held a minute of silence in memory of one of the most influential opposition leaders, billionaire businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died in his home near London on Tuesday -- of heart disease, according to pathologists' initial conclusions.

"He is a victim of persecution by Georgia's current government," Koba Davitashvili, the leader of the opposition People's Party, told the crowd.

The opposition groups are demanding a recount of the Jan. 5 presidential election, in which Saakashvili won a second term with 53 percent of the votes, according to the official results. They are also asking for fair access to state television and dismissal of the interior minister.

In January, they gave Saakashvili a deadline to meet their demands, which also included changes in the current election system so it becomes more transparent. The deadline expired Friday.

"We are here! We must show that we will not give up," said Levan Gachechiladze, who challenged Saakashvili in the Jan. 5 election.

The opposition claims that Saakashvili was pushed over the 50 percent threshold for an outright victory by fraud, and wants him to face a runoff against Gachechiladze, who officially won about 25 percent.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the vote a "triumphant step" for democracy in Georgia, but pointed to an array of violations.

Saakashvili's government has been accused of authoritarianism and criticized for failing to ease poverty.

A brutal police crackdown Nov. 7 on an opposition rally in Tbilisi caused public anger and drew criticism from Western governments. Saakashvili called the early presidential vote to ease tensions.