On June 12, the Georgian parliament passed the first reading of the draft amendments to the national election code.
Amendments include modifying the eligibility criteria for voter and political participation, decreasing the legal age requirement for running for office, extending the mandate of the Voters’ List Verification Commission (VLVC), as well as establishing criteria for international electoral observers monitoring Georgian elections.
The amendments are designed to bring the Election Code in line with the May 2012 constitutional amendments which came into force at the beginning of June.
Of particular importance is the amendment that would allow a non-citizen to participate fully in the Georgian electoral process as outlined in the Election Code and the Law on Political Unions of Citizens if he or she is born in Georgia, retains citizenship of an EU-member state and has resided permanently in Georgia for the last five years. These rights and obligations include the right to vote, the right to campaign for political parties and the right to donate a maximum of GEL 60,000 per year to political parties.
This change, should it pass second and third readings in the parliament, would allow the unofficial leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2012 and the presidential elections the following year.
Ivanishvili, a citizen of France but born in Georgia, was granted Georgian citizenship by incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004. However, the President revoked Ivanishvili’s citizenship in October 2011 after the businessman indicated his interest in running for politics.
According to the Georgian press, Ivanishvili has declared that he will not make use of these “absurd” amendments arguing that it is not normal for amendments to be made on the basis of one individual. He has stated that he will only run for office when he regains Georgian citizenship, noting that he will apply for dual citizenship as recommended by the Civil Registry Agency in Georgia.
Moving in line with international standards, the amendments to the Electoral Code also include the reduction of the age requirement for a person to run for Member of Parliament from 25 to 21.
Furthermore, the amendments would extend the end date of the Voters’ List Verification Commission (VLVC) mandate to December 31, 2012, thus allowing for the VLVC to carry out verification procedures on election day. Chairman of the VLVC, Mamuka Katsitadze, stated that party representatives will be able to cross-check the voters list at polling stations on election day with those compiled by the commission.
The VLVC is currently conducting door-to-door voter list verification. As has been reported previously in Caucasus Elections Watch, the accuracy of the voters’ list has been an issue in past Georgian elections.
Finally, the amendments also list the eligibility criteria and standards for an organization to be registered as international electoral observers in Georgia. These amendments appear to be directed at blocking Russian observers for the fall 2012 elections.
The amendments would require observers to respect Georgian legislation, sovereignty and human rights norms, maintain non-interference in the electoral process, political impartiality, transparent financial practices and financial autonomy from Georgian political interests, as well as the full observation of international election observation standards.
Representatives of the governing United National Movement hinted that the legislation is aimed primarily at Russia and concerns that Russian observers might be planning to “destabilize the situation.”
During U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Georgia last week, President Saaskashvili emphasized the importance of ensuring a sense of legitimacy amongst Georgians with regards to impartial electoral observers in order to ensure “fair, transparent elections, acceptable for everyone.”
However there is also concern that the legislation may be used to hinder other observers too.
Speaking in Washington, at the Atlantic Council, an American think tank, U.S. Ambassador John Bass noted that although some additional improvements were required in the electoral process, “broadly speaking there is a landscape in place which enables the kind of competitive election that Georgians would like to see.” Ambassador Bass cautioned that “one of the challenges for this period is ensuring the environment is competitive enough so that people focus more on contesting the elections themselves rather than on contesting the legitimacy of the process.”
Report prepared by Karina Gould for CEW, with additional reporting from Democracy and Freedom Watch (www.dfwatch.net) and Civil.ge.