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Laura Thornton. Photo: NDI Georgia

Laura Thornton: we hope the runoff campaign will be free of negative attacks

On October 28, Georgians went to the polls to elect their fifth president. The National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based non-profit, dispatched a high-level observation mission to monitor the presidential elections.

To speak on the election day and the period leading up to it, as well as the upcoming runoffs, we have approached Laura Thornton, NDI’s resident director in Georgia and one of the members of the high-level delegation.

Thank you for the interview. Georgia held the first round of its last direct presidential elections on October 28. International observers, including the NDI delegation, said the Election Day was orderly and well-administered. What where the main findings from the E-Day? 

Thank you for your interest. Indeed, the delegation did note a largely calm and orderly election day, and was also impressed by the diligence and preparedness of polling officials, with some sporadic exceptions of course. Further, Georgian voters deserve credit for their turnout, comparable to 2013, and commitment to the democratic process, as there was much speculation that voter interest would be lower. There were, however, widespread concerns about the presence of candidate activists, mostly affiliated with Georgian Dream, outside polling stations with lists of voters. This is not illegal, and a common mobilization tactic in other countries, but in the context of Georgia and the pre-election period, with reports of state officials being instructed to support GD-backed candidate Zurabishvili, this could be viewed as potential intimidation. We also received more reports than in previous years about money exchanging hands, a troubling development. We do need to wait for the resolutions of complaints before fully evaluating the election day.

I also, as always, was impressed by the work of ISFED, TI, GYLA, and PMMG diligently and independently monitoring the process. Further, ISFED’s PVT continues to be extremely important particularly if competing parties cast doubts on the official results. ISFED’s findings confirm the preliminary CEC results for the first round.

What about the pre-election period? You’ve noted in your preliminary assessments that the campaign environment was generally peaceful, but highly negative. What do you think were the main challenges to that end?

Yes, it was unfortunate to see such negative rhetoric in this campaign, though this is certainly not unique to Georgia. I also do think that there were challenges in exactly how to campaign for an office so stripped of power and functions. When candidates attempted to be “issue-based,” they were criticized for making promises they could not fulfill given the limited powers of the president. Thus, for some the campaign became about values, important, but also about attacking opponents. Unfortunately, partisanship in the main broadcasters enabled these divisions and gave platforms for these attacks. Social media also became a convenient venue for hostile and hateful messaging. Monitoring groups noted large numbers of sponsored ads, mostly attacking the opposition, using degrading and offensive language and memes. Zurabishvili was also on the receiving end of many Facebook posts, being called a “traitor,” among other things. I support Georgia’s strong freedom of speech provisions, and would not change them. There is, however, a need for more constructive, thoughtful political discourse. Otherwise I fear Georgian citizens will only become more apathetic and disenchanted with the democratic process, and this leaves a dangerous space for other illiberal forces to take hold.

You have also noted in your conclusions that there were “aggressive, personalized, and unprecedented attacks” against the civil society organizations in the period leading up to the elections. What’s your take on this?

It is one thing to have negative attacks between competitors, although unpleasant. It is another when people turn around a punch to the referees who are just trying to do their jobs as independent watchdogs. As we stated in our report, CSOs are not above criticism, but such criticism should be based on clear evidence. What we saw in the weeks ahead of the election were seemingly-orchestrated, continual attacks by senior government leaders against the country’s most professional and respected CSOs, calling them and their leaders ignorant, unprofessional, partisan, and accomplices of fascism, among other things. There were even accusations of illegal conduct. I work with these organizations closely. We saw no truth in these accusations. GYLA, TI, ISFED, and others maintained professional behavior, stuck to clear and transparent methodologies, and always backed up their work with evidence. These groups have noted improvements and exposed shortcomings, as is their job, for years. It seems some do not remember that they played the exact same role when UNM was in government.

I do not really want to speculate on the causes for such escalated attacks – was it to undermine or divert attention from any criticism of the election process and the government in general? Maybe. But what I have noticed is that the narrative in Georgian politics today – as elsewhere – is very black and white, a “with us or against us” mentality, and people have been pushed into camps. If you criticize, you are in the “other” camp. This is very unhealthy. Further, given one party consolidation in Georgia and a weakened president, CSOs are one of the last remaining checks and balances in the country, and efforts to discredit and undermine them can have a long term impact on democratic development. I hope the country’s leaders can set a positive example for society — and, frankly, show a bit of a thicker skin — by standing behind the nation’s watchdogs even when they are critical and perhaps at times pesky, recognizing the essential role they play in democracy.

Also, what would you say about the media environment ahead of the elections? Your conclusions have said the environment was diverse, but polarized along the partisan lines. Could you elaborate more on that?

There are several issues with the media environment. First, as in my own country, some of the main broadcasters have become part of the partisan divide. Rustavi 2 and Imedi do not shy away from their political preferences, so it is at least transparent and most citizens probably understand the biases. It does not help with overall trust, though, and our polls consistently show that almost 70 percent of Georgians believe the main television stations spread disinformation. Second, media broadcasters describe their difficult financial situations, regional broadcasters in particular. When the key broadcasters are unable to operate as profitable businesses, investing as they’d like in journalists and programming, political purposes become the de facto raison d’etre. Rustavi 2 also faces legal problems around ownership of the station, with a case pending in Strasbourg. Third, we saw in this campaign senior leaders attacking Rustavi 2, and to a lesser extent TV Pirveli, with the party chair describing how Georgia would be a place of progress and development if Rustavi 2 did not exist, suggesting the station is a key cause of the country’s troubles. He also hinted that this situation would be addressed in some way, a comment considered ominous by many. Would I like to see more professional, balanced reporting in Georgia? Absolutely. At the same time, it is imperative that Rustavi 2 and others be allowed to operate. Diverse and free media, along with CSOs, are an essential check on the governance system.

We are now heading to the second round runoffs, which promises to be no less competitive than the first round. Do you have any recommendations for Georgian election stakeholders?

We have many. I am worried that given the tightness of the race in the first round that the rhetoric and tension may intensify even more. I hope the campaigns, and media covering them, will steer clear of negative attacks and fear-mongering and focus on candidates’ values, visions for the presidency, and how they plan to represent the Georgian people from the highest elected office in the country. As we said in our statement, we call upon senior government leaders to stop their attacks on CSOs, and we also hope the international community will also condemn these attacks and robustly defend and support civic groups. I am heartened that the EU, UK, ODHIR, and Council of Europe have done this in statements and interviews. Ahead of the runoffs, there will likely be concerns again about abuse of administrative resources. It was commendable that the Prime Minister issued a letter describing appropriate conduct of state employees. This needs to be accompanied by some monitoring mechanism and enforcement. And these incidents of violence that we’ve just seen in Akhalkalaki and Kaspi must be quickly and thoroughly investigated with perpetrators sanctioned in order to send a message ahead of the election that violence is not tolerated, will be met with a quick and harsh response, and has no place in an election.

In our statement, there are also some longer term recommendations – such as changes in the election code and reforms related to the IACFF, State Audit Office, the GNCC, and others. However, the main challenges in Georgian elections cannot be solved with technical or legal fixes – they are entrenched issues. A grossly uneven playing field, abuse of administrative resources, intimidation, harmful and aggressive rhetoric – these all require political will to solve. To me, this is an opportunity to break the cycle and bolster public trust in the democratic process.

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