Georgian Elections: Mostly Free but largely unfair.

Like the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian parliamentary elections held on 1 October 2012, reflected a mix of the best and worst practises for conducting elections in a free and democratic society.

Regardless of the result and the controversy around it that will continue for some time to come, the picture is patchy.

  • Constitutional and legal framework

The elections were held within a Constitutional and legal framework that were clearly biased in favour of the ruling United National Movement. The elasticity with which the Georgian Constitution has been treated since 2004 has built in advantages for the current ruling group. The lack of checks and balances, resulting from a timid parliament and a judiciary that has failed to defend its independence have been a serious weaknesses of the Georgian political system since the Rose Revolution of 2003, and reflected themselves in the way the government tried to destroy Bidhzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream at its inception.

  • Pre-election situation

The pre-election situation was tense and confrontational. The leading Georgian NGOs: Transparency International, Georgian Young Lawyers Association and ISFED summed up very efficiently the many deficiencies in the pre-election environment in their report last week (see pages 6-7 for the full text.)

  • Media

The Media situation, until the official start of the election campaign at the end of August greatly favoured the ruling party. The “must carry” campaign, conducted by Georgian civil society helped rectify some of the problems for the duration of the campaign, but the government resisted calls to have the “must carry” rules extended beyond the election period. The media, even during the campaign could have done more to give a voice to the smaller parties contesting the election, some of whom had credible alternative programmes.

  • Campaigning

The short five week election campaign was vibrant and largely peaceful, even if tense. Despite credible reports of intimidation of opposition supporters the opposition was free to organise and mobilise and this was the most positive side of the election. The role of the Inter-Agency Task Force, under the auspices of the National Security Council of Georgia,  probably  helped avoid escalations in a number of areas.

  • Voting Process

The voting process proceeded largely peacefully and in an orderly fashion. The turnout of nearly 61% was realistic and within the bounds of reason. Hundreds of complaints of irregularities were registered throughout the poll, and it could be that with further study a pattern could be identified. However the initial impression is that most problems originated locally by supporters of the government being overzealous. The overall impression is that most Georgians could exercise their right to vote freely and without intimidation.

  • Counting Process

Many past Georgian elections have been falsified at the counting phase. This in itself should have prepared both the authorities and the political activists to ensure a smooth counting process. Whilst the Central Elections Commission prided itself on its efficiency during the poll, it seemed to have been completely unprepared for dealing with the counting process. The long delays, and even interruptions in the counting makes one wonder why and what was going on. Here again some more time is required to study all the data and identify a pattern. The incidence of direct interference in the counting by unauthorised uniformed personnel is disgraceful.

Mostly free, but largely unfair.

All this leads us to conclude that the 2012 Parliamentary Elections in Georgia were mostly free, but largely unfair.

In a situation where the Georgian government has often acted like “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” this is not surprising. Those in the international community who met and liked Dr Jekyll, but refused to admit to the existence of Mr Hyde carry some of the responsibility for Georgia’s problems, whilst those who said that Dr Jekyll did not exist were equally wrong.

Certainly for the next year Georgia is going to have to learn to live with power being shared – in what proportion is not yet clear, by two strong political forces: one holding the Presidency and one strong in the parliament. This will be the setting for next year’s presidential election. The best thing that can happen is if the United National Movement and the Georgian Dream start early consultations to enact the needed constitutional and legal changes that would ensure a level playing field and best practises for that election. They must do so whilst respecting each other, and more importantly respect others who support neither of their parties, and of these there are many.

With all its weaknesses the 2012 Parliamentary Election in Georgia may yet have been the turning point for the country and the region and a breakthrough for the South Caucasus in its quest for a democratic future.

Source: This comment was prepared by the editorial team of Caucasus Elections Watch.