Georgia approaches the October 8 parliamentary elections “equipped with a deepening reserve of democratic assets and also facing critical but surmountable challenges,” said a team from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which assessed pre-election environment in the country.
While noting that the underlying elements for a democratic election process are “largely in place”, NDI’s preelection assessment mission also pointed out “three fundamental challenges.”
“Key leaders from across the political spectrum agree that the integrity of the parliamentary elections will depend on overcoming three fundamental challenges: the possibility of violence and intimidation; low confidence that laws will be applied impartially; and the perception that some individuals will significantly influence the process from behind the scenes,” it said.
The six-member delegation from the U.S.-based group, NDI, working on political party development and democracy programs in Georgia since 1994, met on June 13-17 with country’s leadership, senior government officials, wide range of election stakeholders across the political spectrum, and civil society representatives.
In its findings of the pre-election situation, released on June 17, NDI called on Georgia’s political leaders “to set an example by placing the integrity and peacefulness of the process above partisan interests” and working across party lines when Georgia’s larger interests are at stake.
“Setting precedents of preelection cooperation will be especially constructive given the likelihood that coalition governance will be required following the elections,” it said.
“Georgia is on the front lines of the struggle to defend European and EuroAtlantic values from an aggressive and authoritarian worldview,” NDI’s mission said, noting in this regard occupation of Georgia’s breakaway regions by Russia, which, it said, continues exerting pressure including through “propaganda, infusions of money, and threats, with the intent of obstructing Georgia’s chosen path toward the West.”
It said that if Georgia’s democratic future is thwarted, the impact on the broader region would be profound. “The stakes in October’s elections are thus high,” NDI’s mission said.
“Domestically, Georgians’ high and growing expectations of their leaders and institutions have not been fully met... Considerable attention is focused on the perception that unaccountable individuals are influencing politics from behind the scenes, to the detriment of democratic and transparent decision-making,” it said.
NDI’s mission said that there are “individuals from across the political landscape who cast the electoral campaign and the broader political environment as battleground where the rules of the game can be disregarded or exploited for partisan advantage or to settle old scores.”
It, however, also said that the mission was “deeply encouraged to hear forward-looking leaders from the main governing and opposition parties expressing a consensus view that these issues require immediate attention and pledging to work across party lines to address them.”
NDI’s mission said that violence in the village of Kortskheli on May 22, when opposition UNM party leaders and activists were beaten by supporters of GDDG ruling was “a particularly alarming incident.”
While it noted condemnations of the Kortskheli violence voiced by senior political leaders, including PM, President, Parliament Speaker, it also said that “some government and ruling party officials, however, made inflammatory public statements deflecting responsibility and misrepresenting events.”
“This is not conducive to reducing tensions,” the NDI mission said and also added that the violence in Kortskheli “has been met with a slow and thus far inadequate response from law enforcement authorities.”
“These delays were contrasted to the swift and consequential punishments, including pretrial detention, for opposition activists and protesters charged in connection with allegedly less serious events,” NDI’s mission said.
Six men have been charged, without being arrested, in connection to the Kortskheli violence. Lawmakers from UNM party, who are currently boycotting the Parliament over the Kortskheli incident, say they will not be attending Parliament sessions unless all the perpetrators and masterminds of the violence in Kortskheli are held accountable. UNM specifically accuses energy minister and general secretary of the ruling GDDG party, Kakha Kaladze, of being behind the group, which attacked opposition party members in Kortskheli.
“The need for fair and consistent application of the law ranked highly among the concerns raised with the delegation. Civil society and opposition as well as governing political parties lack confidence that the police, prosecutors, or courts can be relied upon to respond – whether to electoral disputes or physical confrontations – in a timely, impartial, and effective manner,” NDI’s mission said.
The Parliament is now discussing government-proposed legislative amendment, which, the government said, would allow the authorities to provide better policing outside the polling stations and would also toughen punishment for election and campaign related violence. Critics, however, say that the problem is not in legislation, but in failure to properly apply already existing laws by the authorities.
NDI’s mission suggested that policy discussions on economy, poverty, employment – issues, which according to polls, voters care the most – may continue to be overshadowed by topics that hold little interest for voters.
“The trend of a disconnection between citizens’ interests and the content of public discussions is exemplified in a proposal to hold an election-day constitutional referendum on defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The measure would be duplicative of existing legislation and is seen by some as a tactic, perhaps inspired from outside Georgia, to boost turnout among a highly conservative and ultranationalistic segment of the electorate. Regardless of the motive, it would serve as a distraction from the issues that Georgians say they want addressed,” NDI’s mission said.
On the Central Election Commission (CEC), NDI’s mission said that political parties and NGOs expressed overall confidence in its competence and integrity, but it also noted that some observers and political parties “raised concerns about the impartiality and qualifications of some newly appointed professional district election commissioners, who are meant to be nonpartisan. Some of those selected have party roles in their recent backgrounds.”
The delegation included Per Eklund, former EU ambassador to Georgia; Sam Coppersmith, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives; Janusz Onyszkiewicz, former vice president of the European Parliament and Polish minister of defense; Michael Posner, former assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the U.S. State Department; Laura Jewett, NDI regional director for Eurasia; and Laura Thornton, NDI senior resident country director in Georgia.