OSCE/ODIHR prepares to deploy 400 international observers for Georgia’s autumnas report of its “Needs Assessment Mission” highlights polorised environment. 1

An OSCE/ODIHR “Needs assessment mission”, ahead of Georgia’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for October, has released its report following its visit to the country from 11-15 June. The report noted a “polarised” electoral environment in Georgia and stated the need to ensure that the elections are observed evenly across the country, with particular emphasis on the regions with national minorities.

The OSCE/ODIHR representatives called for OSCE Member States to pledge 28 long-term observers to be deployed for the campaign period and 350 short-term observers for the actual election day, in addition to the core OSCE/ODIHR staff. While noting several improvements, and the implementation of many of the OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission’s previous recommendations to the electoral framework and preparations, the report highlighted concerns surrounding voters’ lists, abuse of administrative funds for campaign purposes, intimidation of opposition supporters in the regions, the rigidity and selectivity of the State Audit Service (SAS), and the political polarisation of the media. The report recommended the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission (EOM) concentrate its activities on monitoring the implementation and impact of the new electoral legal framework, media coverage of the campaign, the application of the new regulations for campaign financing, the performance of the complaints and appeals mechanism, and the general conduct of candidates throughout the campaign.

New Electoral Code

The report welcomed the adoption of the new electoral code of Georgia in late 2011. It pointed to the generally inclusive legislative process, though concerns were recorded that many opposition parties felt their suggestions were not included in the final version. “The draft,” concluded the OSCE and the Venice Commission last December, “included the necessary elements for administering elections and addressed several previous recommendations.” The two international bodies repeated calls to address the issue of unequal sizes of electoral districts and provisions that allow “political officials to campaign while conducting their official duties and permitting the use of administrative resources as long as they are accessible to all contestants.”

The most positive assessment with regard to the current pre-election environment in Georgia was reserved for the Central Election Commission (CEC), including the District and Precinct Election Commissions. In general, “overall trust” was noted by those interviewed for the report. Many interlocutors pointed out the efforts of the CEC chairperson to build trust in the institution amongst the Georgian population. The CEC, in collaboration with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, has prepared a guide for the election commissions and the public on how to initiate and what to expect in the complaints procedure. Furthermore, the Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) praised the CEC for the numerous education campaigns it is planning to encourage voter participation, particularly among women, the disabled and national minorities.

Voter’s list

On the whole, the OSCE/ODIHR NAM to Georgia viewed the changes to the compilation to the voters’ list as positive. Importantly, in contrast to previous elections, the lists will not be compiled by the Central Election Commission (CEC) but rather by the Commission for Ensuring Voter List Accuracy (CEVLA). As a result of the issues surrounding previous voter lists, the government and opposition parties agreed to create CEVLA as a neutral body which is chaired by a representative of the opposition and composed of seven representatives from the government, political parties and civil society, respectively. CEVLA is currently undertaking a nation-wide voter list verification exercise.

Twelve thousand staff have gone door-to-door to verify lists and discrepancies are checked with the Civil Registry Agency (CRA) of the Ministry of Justice. Verification is planned to be completed by August 1st, at which point the voter’s list will be made available for public scrutiny on-line, via telephone hotlines and SMS. Though many stakeholders have noted an increased confidence in this procedure to ensure accuracy, the NAM report highlights that the continued lack of a unified address system in Georgia complicates verification procedures.

The CRA interlocutors also pointed to the difficulty of identifying and verifying voters living abroad. The CRA has taken steps to address the above issues including initiating a procedure to establish an address system in Tbilisi and 200 large villages for the elections, the removal of deceased voters from the lists, as well as the creation of an on-line voter registration platform through the Georgian consular network – though some of those interviewed by the mission expressed their concerns that manipulation of the lists of voters abroad on election day was still a possibility.

Funding and Administrative Resources

The OSCE-NAM report underlined the public criticism of the newly formed State Audit Service (SAS), which was created in an effort to ensure greater transparency, oversight and enforcement mechanisms surrounding financing of political parties and campaigns. Concerns have been flagged about the discretionary authority granted to the SAS through the amendments to the Law on Political Unions of Citizens.

Some of the persons interviewed by the OSCE-NAM representatives pointed to the apparently selective approach taken by the SAS and its focus on Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the opposition coalition, Georgian Dream. The report also brought to the attention of the CEC the OSCE/ Venice Commission apprehension concerning the possible abuse of administrative resources by political officials during the campaign. The CEC, according to the report, is taking steps to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with all candidates regarding the use of administrative resources during the campaign, although no further details were provided as to what will be included in this MoU.

The Media Environment

Finally, the NAM report presented a mixed picture of the media environment leading up to the elections. While on the one hand acknowledging the positive adoption of the must-carry/mustoffer legislation in the Georgian Parliament this month, the report nevertheless presented its worries about the biased nature of national media coverage of the elections and highlighted the observation of the implementation of the new legislation as a task to be carried out by the EOM.

Source: Report compiled by Karina Gould for CEW.

The full report of the “Needs Assessment Mission” is available on the ODIHR web site, www.odihr.pl.