During its winter session held in Strasbourg on January 21-25, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) debated yesterday the election observation report of the last direct presidential elections in Georgia.
The author of the report, Andrej Hunko (Germany, UEL), who led the PACE delegation to Georgia, said in his introduction that on election day for the first round, voting was “well-organised” and voters “made their choice without restrictions,” while the second round “was competitive, and candidates were able to campaign freely.”
He said “however, one side enjoyed an undue advantage and the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process.” He also underscored that “the presence of so-called coordinators, who were directing and ‘assisting’ voters, and noting who voted” must be excluded from the electoral process.
Hunko said the delegation was informed on isolated cases of violent incidents, disruption of campaign events, concerns regarding the alleged misuse of administrative resources and the participation of public employees in campaign events during working hours, which “blurred the line between the State and party and were at odds with Council of Europe standards in the field of democratic elections.”
“As for the election campaign financing, we noted that party and campaign finance legislation lack uniformity, and recent legislative amendments did not address long-standing recommendations of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO),” the rapporteur said, stressing that “substantial imbalance in donations, and excessively high spending limits did not contribute to a level playing field.”
“Our observation delegation noted that the system of campaign expenditure was surprisingly generous with money coming from the State budget and private donations – and this in a country with a high level of poverty,” the author said, calling on the Georgian authorities to continue their close co-operation with the Venice Commission to improve the quality of elections.
The report was followed by a debate.
Statements by the Georgian Representatives
Georgian representatives at PACE have made statements along the fault-lines of the heated and contentious campaign.
Deputy Speaker Tamar Chugoshvili, from the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) thanked international observation mission for monitoring the presidential elections in Georgia. “We value and appreciate your time and dedication, and we carefully read and follow your findings and recommendations,” Chugoshvili said.
In her remarks, the Deputy Speaker also said the campaign was “remarkable owing to the fact that Georgia has elected its first female president”. She noted that “despite the positive outcome of the elections, we have learned some lessons from the process and some of the unfortunate dynamics that we observed,” noting particularly that “the campaign was hateful, full of harassment and intimidation” against Salome Zurabishvili.
Opposition MP Giorgi Kandelaki, of the European Georgia, focused the attention of PACE on the preliminary post-election statement of the international observers (including PACE delegation), saying the election observation report “illustrates that Georgia is at serious risk… This is by far the most critical assessment of Georgian elections since the 1990s.”
He pointed at the reports concerning the vote buying, physical confrontation, disproportionate attribution of campaign donations to the ruling party candidate, and concerns expressed by observers “concerning the ability of voters to vote free of fear of retribution.”
Kandelaki was rebuked by ruling party MP Zviad Kvachantiradze, saying “although you [opposition] are known as a lying machine in our native country, please stop lying and misinterpreting the reports of serious international organisations.” MP Kvachantiradze said “sadly, many [voters] were taking the easy route, falling for the lies and platitudes of presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze [of the United National Movement], a man with very close ties to Russia and the former Soviet Union.”
Fellow MP Dimitri Tskitishvili also said “elections in Georgia were free and fair, competitive and well organised, as is mentioned in the report, although there is objective criticism of the process as well.” He also reiterated the ruling party points, accusing the opposition candidate of a “focus on disgraceful campaign against the woman candidate.”
Other PACE Delegates
PACE members from the European Union states participated in the debate and expressed positions divided alongside the political families. The European Socialists representatives – who share the political family with GDDG – were highlighting overall progress, while speaking of shortfalls presented in the report. The EPP and liberals – partners of the Georgian opposition – were more critical of the past elections, especially of the second round of polls. Below are summaries of statements:
Boriana Åberg (Sweden, EPP/CD): “The first round was competitive and professionally administered, candidates were able to campaign freely, and voters made their choice without restrictions. However, there were some shortcomings, especially concerning the financing of campaigns and the misuse of administrative resources by the ruling party.
There were also concerns expressed about the selection of members to legal election bodies, which led to suspicion of nepotism or political interest – or both. I was not able to observe the second round, as the day of the election was a Wednesday, and decided on short notice. To have an election on an ordinary working day is not in the interests of all voters and leads to suspicions that it was politically motivated.”
Maryvonne Blondin, (France, SOC) congratulated Hunko on a complete and fair report and stressed that the elections took place “in a rather special constitutional context, marked by Georgia’s gradual move towards a parliamentary regime.” She welcomed “the democratic evolution of Georgia” and stressed that the “situation in the country is still difficult because of the high level of poverty and the persistent territorial conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” She said Georgia’s election practices must progress in the areas where shortfalls such as “the abuse of administrative resources, suspicion of vote purchasing, the politicization of certain civil servants, and shortcomings in the legislation covering the funding of political parties and electoral campaigns” were identified. However, Blondin welcomed that the “election took place in a democratic manner” and expressed hope that that “the election of Salome Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat, will be an opportunity for a major public debate on the future of Georgia and particularly the importance of its becoming closer to the European Union.”
Angela Smith (United Kingdom, SOC): “On one level, it was very satisfying to see the election of a woman president with more than 60% of the vote and the positive comments in the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights report on the mission. However, there are outstanding issues. The second round of the presidential election saw the use of administrative resources to support the aims of one political party, as well as further pressures on media freedom in the campaign.
Overall, the most important and worrying comments in that report related to the way in which the campaign was characterized by hate, particularly online on social media, and the polarization of the politics of that election. It is on those last two points that I will make what I think is a very important point on the democratic process.
I have now monitored, I think, three election missions. It always strikes me that the democratic process working properly depends very much on two things: transparency and trust. Without those two important concepts in place, it is difficult to build a successful democratic process. The more quickly that Georgia moves towards building trust and transparency in its democratic process, the more quickly I think the country will resolve the ugly hate and polarization that characterized the recent campaign.”
Birgir Thórarinsson (Iceland, EPP/CD): “On my arrival in Tbilisi, what first caught my attention was that one candidate obviously had considerably more financial resources than the others when it came to advertisements.
It is important to mitigate campaign finance abuses. In Georgia, we witnessed a new form of vote buying, with the announcement by the government of the equivalent of debt relief for 600 000 individuals, which was funded by a private financial institution linked to the chairperson of the political party Georgian Dream, the official supporter of one of the presidential candidates.
Let us not forget that electoral law and criminal codes prohibit vote buying. It is my opinion that the timing of the debt relief created a serious violation of free, fair and credible elections in a democratic State. The report’s findings speak for themselves: the misuse of administrative resources and the public broadcast funded by the Georgian taxpayers did not ensure editorial independence and impartiality; the tracking of voters raised concerns about potential intimidation; there was a large imbalance in campaign donation in favor of a candidate backed by a ruling party; and the handling of complaints was weak.”