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Stephen Nix. Photo: screengrab from VoA interview

Stephen Nix: We hope elections will be well-administered, peaceful and transparent

On October 28, Georgians will cast vote to elect their president directly for the last time. VOA Georgian’s Ani Chkhikvadze spoke on the upcoming elections with Stephen Nix, regional program director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute.

Elections are coming up in Georgia. What are the issues that the population cares about ahead of the elections?

We have the presidential elections coming up this weekend in Georgia. According to the IRI polling, which stems from roughly three or four months ago, the main issues among the general population remain similar and those are the state of the economy, jobs, pensions, socio-economic welfare – what we would call in the United States the ‘bread and butter’ issues. Domestic issues I think will be the main ones, although there is always a foreign policy element to the political discussion that goes to the Russia issue.

In a way, Russia and the 2008 war are defining these elections. This is one of the most discussed topics. Based on your polling data, what do people think about Russia or what are the sentiments towards Moscow?

The most important component from the survey data regarding foreign relations and regarding Russia is that the vast majority of Georgians view Russia as a strategic threat to their country. That is a very important issue. We always pose a question about who are Georgia’s main partners, who are Georgia’s main threats and obviously, Russia – way above any other country – poses a strategic threat. And Georgia has many strategic partners including the United States, including the EU, including Ukraine and other countries in the neighborhood.

Many organizations have spoken about media polarization and attempts from the government to monopolize media. How would you assess media environment in Georgia ahead of the elections?

We see a lot of coverage of the candidates, which is encouraging, but we know that there have been conflicts and arguments about objectivity. I think that is a part of the political process. But, we hope and encourage Georgia to continue to have a very open and transparent media process, where all candidates receive coverage during the campaign.

Traditionally, in a negative sense, use of the administrative resource during the elections campaign has always been an issue. In addition, business donations often favor the ruling party. Many organizations, including OSCE, have pointed this out. What are the issues you saw ahead of this election?

Our hope is that these elections are well-administered, peaceful and transparent. We have seen the Central Election Commission of Georgia and its subordinate commissions improve the level of election administration with each election. We hope for continued improvement on the election administration front, and we hope that these elections will be very peaceful on the Election Day. We also hope that once the election results are announced and a new president is elected, the country rallies around that president and the other candidates withdraw peacefully and acknowledge the election if they believe it was free, open and transparent. That is our hope for Georgia that those things will all take place.

Members of the government and other actors in Georgia often attack your organization, and other polling organizations too, mistrust the polls and criticize it. What would your response be to them?

Our response is, as it always is, that we believe in our methodology and our process and we believe in the veracity and the accuracy of the IRI data, whether that is in Georgia or Ukraine or Moldova or the other countries where we do polling. We are very confident about the accuracy of our polling.

You are going to Georgia very soon. What would your message be to the political parties and political players ahead of the elections?

What we have been doing in Georgia – we have been providing the parties with survey data – so that they can focus on issues that are meaningful to the Georgian people. We have seen a lot of campaigning based on these economic issues that we have discussed, and again that is another positive development.

We will also be looking at the tone of the campaign because in the past there have been personal attacks made. Hopefully, Georgia will continue to make strides, and the tone of the campaign will be more positive and less negative than it has been in the past.

And again, the message to the Georgian people is: you have worked hard to gain your sovereign right to vote and elect your officials, turn out and vote. That is what we want the Georgian people to do – participate. We hope that turnout is high as this will be the last chance for the Georgian people to select their president; we hope they will take advantage of it and turn out in high numbers.

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