The overall political environment ahead of the June 15 local elections in Georgia is characterized by “pluralism and activism”, but “polarization continues to be a problem,” said a team from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which assessed pre-election environment in the country.
The five-member delegation from the U.S.-based group, NDI, working on political party development and democracy programs in Georgia since 1994, met on April 28-May 1 with wide range of election stakeholders across the political spectrum, senior government officials and civil society representatives and laid out its findings on May 2.
“Georgia continues to benefit from the fundamentals of democracy. However, there are concerns that could jeopardize those achievements if not addressed,” the delegation said in its statement.
It said that “animosity” between the two major political groups, ruling Georgian Dream coalition and opposition United National Movement party (UNM), “shapes much of the political environment, diverting attention from more constructive discussions on Georgia’s future.”
“Efforts to delegitimize and criminalize political adversaries are still commonplace. The line between state and party remains blurred. Allegations of politically-motivated harassment tarnish an otherwise vibrant political landscape,” it said. “The delegation was informed of numerous unsubstantiated criminal allegations that seemed intended to delegitimize political opponents. The local elections are an opportunity to move beyond this dynamic.”
The NDI mission said that last year’s presidential election and 2012 parliamentary elections set “a commendable trajectory of democratic processes” and it will be important now for the upcoming local elections “to exceed those standards.”
On electoral and local self-governance legislation, the delegation noted that some amendments have been “widely praised”, among them transition of mayors and gamgebelis (heads of municipalities) from indirect to direct elections; setting electoral threshold for mayors and gamgebelis at 50%; lowering threshold for party-list contest in local councils (Sakrebulos) and making state funding to parties more accessible.
It, however, also notes concerns of local observer organizations about some of the legislative amendments, such as allowing Sakrebulos to vote out directly elected mayors and gamgebelis through a two-thirds majority vote without setting any criteria for impeachment.
“This provision effectively shifts some of the mayors’ and gamgebelis’ accountability from the voters back to the sakrebulos, diluting the significance of the direct elections,” NDI mission said.
It also said that a provision in the law through which all local civil servants would be placed on interim status after the June 15 elections “created a perception that reappointments may be politically-influenced.” The delegation noted that although this provision was “unpopular among most parties and even some government leaders, yet no steps have been taken to mitigate its consequences.” Public Defender’s Office, as well as a local watchdog group and employees of the Tbilisi municipality appealed this provision with the Constitutional Court.
The delegation noted that the Central Election Commission and its chairperson, Tamar Zhvania, “inspire widespread confidence in their impartiality and competence.”
On criminal investigations against former government officials and UNM members, the NDI mission said that the “need to uphold the rule of law must be balanced against the need to avoid the reality or perception of selective prosecution.”
“The best approach for achieving this balance is to invest in the independence and credibility of Georgia’s judicial system while ensuring that judicial decision making is confined to that system and not aired in partisan contexts within the executive or legislative branches,” it said.
“Some Georgian and international observers see these investigations as politically motivated – a perception that may be reinforced by the prevalence of unsubstantiated criminal allegations in public discourse,” NDI delegation said.
The delegation included Per Eklund, former head of the EU delegation to Georgia; Sam Gejdenson, former ranking member of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the NDI board; Robert Adams, international elections and democratization expert for Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS) and Democracy Reporting International (DRI); Laura Jewett, NDI regional director for Eurasia; and Luis Navarro, NDI senior resident country director in Georgia.