InterviewsOpinion

Ambassador Ahrens: Georgian counterparts should consider our recommendations

On November 28, Georgians went to the polls to elect their fifth president. The ruling party-backed candidate Salome Zurabishvili obtained 59.52% of the votes, while her challenger – Grigol Vashadze of the United Opposition finished with 40.48% of the votes.

International observers assessed the Presidential runoff as competitive, but highlighted a number of shortcomings during the campaign period. The observers said candidates were able to campaign freely, but one side enjoyed an undue advantage.

To reflect on the second round of Presidential elections, we have approached Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission.

ODIHR EOM has been observing elections in Georgia for a long time now, but this was the first time when Presidential elections went into runoff. What were the new challenges that this presented and would you say that the problems encountered before the first and the second round of elections were qualitatively different?

The second round has not been properly regulated by the electoral legislation. In particular, no one really knew how the campaigning in the media should be regulated between the first round and the announcement of the date of the second round.

This is the point, which, in my opinion, has created uncertainty for the stakeholders. There was also quite an extensive discussion regarding the date of the second round – i.e. whether it could be scheduled on weekday or not.

We are currently preparing our recommendations on how to improve the system and we will certainly make a recommendation that the legislator should regulate the second round. There was a second round in Georgia in the past, but not for the presidential election. Thus we were aware of the legislative problems and made a recommendation suggesting to deal with the second round, however this recommendation was not followed.

As a part of their commitments, which were accepted by OSCE participating states including Georgia, the recommendations have to be reviewed. They do not have to be accepted, but they have at least to be considered.

Now, when we are working on our recommendations, we will try to make them even more practical. I will certainly discuss them with [Central Election Commission Chairperson] Tamar Zhvania and [Parliament Speaker] Irakli Kobakhidze, as some of the recommendations may require legal amendments, while some may cover technical activities of the CEC.

We had a very contentious campaign this time. The statements of different parties during the campaign were also very negative, and some of them went clearly beyond what I would consider personally acceptable.

We’ve said this in the preliminary statement in several places. So, the question is how to deal with hate speech, xenophobia and other similar occurrences. Of course, this is a difficult subject, as on one hand freedom of expression that should not be limited, on the other hand, there should be some reactions related to the hate speech or statements, calling people to act violently against other people. So, this is another point, where we will certainly consider what we can recommend.

The results of the ODIHR EOM media monitoring for the second round indicate that the polarization of major media outlets remained strong. This time you were particularly critical of the Georgian Public Broadcaster, and as you might have seen, they have challenged the accuracy of your observations. What was the reason for your criticism, and what are your recommendations on alleviating the problem of media polarization? 

There was a very strong polarization of private media outlets. If you compare the Rustavi 2 and Imedi, you will see that the result of such comparison will be rather… interesting.

In such polarized media environment Georgian Public Broadcaster has an obligation to be absolutely neutral and follow the Law. In this case unfortunately the GPB did not adhere to their legal obligations before the second round of elections.

It is part of our observation methodology to monitor how the media have covered the elections. We monitor the media not only quantitatively, i.e. how much time each candidate or party has received, but also qualitatively – what has been said and how it was covered.

Also there is always a double verification of the monitored content. The Georgian media monitors do not dictate how individual items should be measured or which conclusions should be written. However, we do need help of our Georgian media monitors, because we do not speak Georgian.

In our practice, the work of media monitors is the first step, while at the second step we translate the items that could be of interest. There is a double-verification mechanism, which allows us to see, if results of the monitoring correspond to the actual coverage.

Your report states “numerous ODIHR interlocutors reported that the ruling party used pressure and intimidation especially on public sector employees and groups dependent on state allowances. Despite secrecy of the vote safeguards, these instances of pressure raised concern about the ability of these people to vote free of fear of retribution.” Public sector employees and vulnerable categories constitute a significant portion of the voters. If we add to this estimated 600 thousand debtors, buying off whose bad debts could have amounted to voter bribing, according to your report, do you think these elements, taken together, could have affected the election outcome?

I’ve already said at the press conference that this is not the question that I will answer.

The goal of our observation activities is to determine, whether the conduct of elections was in line with the OSCE commitments.

The analysis of the adherence to the OSCE commitments consists of four different sectors: political analysis, election analysis, media analysis and legal analysis. In our preliminary statement you can see how we assessed the election as a whole, but

I would never say whether the election was legitimate or illegitimate, I’m not a court and there are complaint procedures in Georgia.

Those who think that they were victims of fraud can file their complaints. We will also of course in our report cover complaints procedures which need some improvement. But in the end, the decision is to be made by the courts. This is the way it has to go. We are not election police and we are not election judges.

In this context, let us ask next question: we saw the relatively high turnout for the second round. The turnout for the second round has increased significantly, compared to the relatively “normal” turnout in the first round, or in comparison with the average turnout rate and numbers since 2012. What do you think about that such rapid jump? Is it realistic from “normal” campaigning point of view, especially if we consider that almost all “new” votes appear to be cast in favor of the ruling party candidate?

There could be various reasons which could explain high turnout. One is of course the development of this whole election process. I remember, that before I arrived here, the first report which I’ve read was the preliminary report of NDI. There with a surprise I’ve read that these elections are futile.

It could be understandable, when a president with rather ceremonial mandate was about to be elected, and election results would not have results in changes in the composition of the government or the parliament.

However, at some point these elections looked more and more like a referendum on whether Georgian Dream should remain in charge, or whether the opposition should take over.

This has significantly heated the atmosphere. Particularly, after the first round Georgian Dream increased their election activities. This might explain part of the higher turnout. I do not want to speculate on any other reasons.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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