While facing challenges to its security and territorial integrity, further democratic development offers the best chance for Georgia’s western integration and long-term stability and parliamentary elections in October provide an important opportunity to deepen the country’s democratic processes, a team of National Democratic Institute (NDI) said.
The U.S.-based group, NDI, working on political party development and democracy programs in Georgia since 1994, conducted this week a fact-finding mission to assess situation in lead up to the parliamentary elections. The five-member delegation met since June 24 with wide range of election stakeholders across political spectrum, senior officials and civil society representatives and laid out its findings on June 29.
NDI mission said it was “concerned about growing political polarization in the country and a dearth of civil discourse among political leaders.”
“The vilification of political adversaries has become commonplace. Moreover, hate speech against religious and ethnic minorities can still be found in Georgian campaign rhetoric. Reports of politically motivated harassment, improper campaign spending, claims of attempted bribery of state officials, and use of administrative resources persist,” the delegation said in its statement.
Referring to a fistfight incident in the village of Mereti on June 26, which thwarted Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili’s campaign meeting with locals, the delegation said that “those found responsible should be punished”.
Noting “number of positive steps” ahead of elections, the mission said, that set of new measures, including setting up of Voters’ List Verification Commission, political finance monitoring unit at the state audit agency, as well as Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections at the National Security Council, combined with amended electoral legislation and introduction of ‘must-carry’ rules made the electoral process “more formalized and regulated compared to past elections.”
The mission, however, also noted that these initiatives, at the same time, “present a challenge for developing the competence of, and public confidence in, the institutions and processes in a short timeframe.”
The mission recommended the authorities to “contribute to a level playing field and equal application of election law towards all” and to make all the procedures transparent “to increase the trust in the electoral process.”
It also called on the authorities “to ensure transparent, equal and reasonable application of campaign finance laws.” Given the controversy this issue, including multi-million fine imposed on Georgian Dream leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, played in the pre-election period, the authorities “should review and consider further reforms to address civil society concerns about the proportionate implementation of regulations,” according to the report.
The delegation said that political finance monitoring unit at the state audit agency, which was launched in January, “was seen at least in its early operation as having serious shortcomings. It appeared to hastily make decisions and without clear or transparent guidelines.”
The state audit agency said on June 29, that in cooperation with civil society representatives, it had completed work on development of guidelines through which the service would conduct further monitoring of political parties’ finances.
While hailing as a positive step the authorities’ decision to agree on introduction of ‘must-carry’ rules, that will obligate cable providers to transmit all the major news channels to their clients, the mission also said that “consideration should be given to the enactment of ‘must carry’ in advance of the campaign period”, as well as “to continuing ‘must carry’ through the announcement of election results.”
The legislative amendment, which was passed with its final reading on June 29, envisages introducing of ‘must-carry’ rules only during the pre-election period – that is sixty days before the election day.
The report calls on political parties to “refrain from illegally raising and spending campaign funds, and using money, goods or services as a means for improperly influencing prospective voters.”
It also recommends political parties to engage voters through “issue-based campaigns” and, while making campaign pledges, to identify clearly for voters the funding source for those pledges.
The delegation also noted that the Central Election Commission has, thus far, operated “in a transparent and inclusive manner.’
The NDI delegation included NDI President Kenneth Wollack; Per Eklund, who was EU ambassador to Georgia in 2006-2010 and is now a senior fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Studies in Stockholm; former Congressman Sam Gejdenson; Secretary of State for Missouri Robin Carnahan; and Luis Navarro, NDI Senior Resident Country Director in Georgia.