Georgia's first female president sworn in

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Georgia's new President Salome Zurabishvili attends her inauguration ceremony in Telavi, Sunday. — AFP

TELAVI, Georgia — Georgia on Sunday swore in its first female president, Salome Zurabishvili as opposition parties continue to denounce her election as fraudulent and demand snap parliamentary polls.

The inauguration paved the way for a new constitution to come into force, transforming the country into a parliamentary republic with a largely ceremonial president.

The event was held in the medieval town of Telavi in Georgia's eastern region of Kakheti.

French-born Zurabishvili, 66, took the oath of office in the courtyard of an 18th-century manor that belonged to Georgia's penultimate king Heraclius II.

"The goal of my presidency is to make Georgia's democratic development and its path toward Europe irreversible," she said in an inaugural speech.

"I will facilitate this process with the support of our strategic partner, the United States of America, and our European friends," she said.

Opposition parties have refused to recognize Zurabishvili's election and tried to hold a protest rally outside the royal residence.

But the plan was thwarted by police, who on Sunday morning blocked a km-long opposition motorcade on a road leading from the capital Tbilisi to Telavi.

Pro-opposition Rustavi-2 TV channel reported that clashes briefly erupted between police officers and protesters as they tried to break through police ranks.

Zurabishvili was elected as the ex-Soviet nation's president last month.

She defeated Grigol Vashadze, the candidate of an 11-party opposition alliance led by exiled former president Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement.

She was backed in the election by the ruling Georgian Dream party of Georgia's ex-premier and billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man, stepped down as prime minister in 2013 after just a year in office but is still widely believed to be Georgia's de facto ruler. His critics accuse him of "state capture."

Former French diplomat Zurabishvili has said her election was a step forward for women and a move closer to Europe.

But opposition parties have refused to accept the result, pointing to instances of alleged vote-buying, multiple voting, voter intimidation, and ballot-stuffing in the Nov. 28 election.

On Dec. 2, thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in Tbilisi against the election result, demanding snap parliamentary polls.

Georgia's leading rights groups denounced the electoral irregularities, which the US State Department said were "not consistent with the country's commitment to fully fair and transparent elections."

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that while the election was "competitive" and candidates campaigned freely, it was concerned over "the misuse of state resources" by the ruling party.

In what critics derided as "vote-buying" ahead of the election, Ivanishvili promised the government would drastically increase social spending and pledged to spend his own money to write off the bank loans of more than 600,000 people. — AFP


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