The election observation by international and non-governmental organizations became routine in the past decades, even though the scale of the observation missions has been falling due to financial constraints of many international organizations, partly caused by the principled opposition of the authoritarian regimes, like Russia, to bodies like OSCE/ODIHR, which they can not directly influence. The spread of the pandemic has further reduced the observation missions, so the local elections – usually a mundane affair – were the first to be foregone.
Not in Georgia, where the October 2 municipal elections were supposed to decide the fate of the early parliamentary elections in 2022. According to the EU-brokered April 19 agreement between the opposition and the ruling party, the new general elections would have been triggered if the ruling Georgian Dream party received less than 43% in the proportional vote. Even though the Georgian Dream unilaterally quit the agreement in July, the opposition and their supporters still treat the upcoming elections as a referendum on the legitimacy of the ruling party.
The political tension has not abated since the October 2020 parliamentary elections, when a disagreement over the scale and impact of election violations escalated into a months-long government crisis. To avoid a similar discrepancy of opinion, the accurate documentation of every possible breach is considered of crucial importance. So election observation is a politically charged role.
As of September 14, 29 international and 64 local monitoring missions have been registered at the Central Election Commission. The registration deadlines pass on September 25 and September 22, respectively. We decided to report on the key election watchdogs, known bodies as well as the newcomers, whose reports are likely to play a key role in the wider acceptance of election results.
Due to the rampant Covid-19 pandemic, the election mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE’s democracy and rights arm, was significantly reduced during the past year’s parliamentary election. It had to cancel the deployment of 350 short-term observers and relied on long-term observers instead. The mission this year was launched on August 28 and consists of a core team of 12 Tbilisi-based experts and 30 long-term observers dispatched throughout Georgia from September 4. This year, ODIHR also plans to request OSCE participating states to send 350 short-term observers, who would arrive days before the polls.
The mission will publish one interim report and provide a statement of preliminary findings the day after the elections. A final election monitoring report, including recommendations for improvements, will be issued two months after the end of the election process.
National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), the U.S.-funded non-profits, started their long-term observation missions for the upcoming municipal elections early in September. IRI launched on September 8 the international Technical Election Assessment Mission (TEAM), comprised of an international group of 4 long-term analysts who will review all phases of the electoral process and issue a series of statements on their findings. For 6 weeks, invited long-term analysts will be assessing pre-election, voting day, and the post-election period, focusing on issues concerning election administration and implementation of the 2021 electoral reforms, media freedom and transparency, political party campaigns, and campaign finance, as well as the inclusion of underrepresented groups.
The NDI mission, launched on September 6, includes 3 long-term analysts (LTAs) and a mission director, supported by additional Georgia-based assistants. It will focus on key electoral themes, including the conduct of political campaigns, the election administration, media and information space, gender and inclusion issues, and the impact of COVID-19 on the elections. The assessment team arrived in Tbilisi over the past weekend and will remain in Georgia through election day.
Other International Missions
Other, more limited international observations efforts will traditionally include diplomatic missions based in Georgia as well as delegations sent from various countries specifically for this purpose. This year’s highlight is the announcement by MEP Marina Kaljurand that the European Parliament will be sending an election observation delegation to observe municipal elections in Georgia. The composition, scale, and schedule of this mission, however, are not known at this point. Traditionally, but not always, the MEP mission works and reports together with OSCE/ODIHR team.
Key Georgian watchdogs as a rule have a wider polling station presence than international missions. The leaders of missions noted with Civil.ge that, owing to the political context, they plan a larger deployment this year compared to any of the earlier municipal elections and stressed that recent changes to election legislation also demand and make possible new approaches in monitoring.
International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED)
The largest local mission is led by ISFED, the major election watchdog in Georgia, which launched its long-term observation early in July, and regularly reports on key trends of both unofficial and official campaign periods as well as social media campaigning. The mission engages 73 long-term staffers plus 1,400 short-term observers to monitor the vote, including 1,000 stationed at the polling stations (1,000), 120-130 outside the election precincts, and the rest assigned to 80 mobile groups and 73 District Election Commissions (DECs).
ISFED Director Nino Dolidze told Civil.ge that the watchdog will monitor the campaign, voting day, and post-election phases, including appeals and vote count at all levels in both election rounds. The organization will again be the only watchdog presenting the Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT), a statistical method aimed to independently verify the official results. The PVT will cover proportional party-list vote as well as Tbilisi mayoral race, the key battlefield in the upcoming elections.
Dolidze said that recent changes in election legislation allow for additional monitoring within 100 meters outside the polling stations, where now restrictions on assembly and campaigning apply, and since vote count is video-monitored, the recordings can be seized as evidence in subsequent disputes. The watchdog head also stressed that the mission is bigger compared to the deployment in earlier local self-government elections, citing the political importance of the upcoming polls.
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Transparency International (TI) Georgia
TI Georgia, another regular observer of Georgia’s elections, will also deploy a larger mission this time compared to its earlier practices during the local elections. Its Director, Eka Gigauri told Civil.ge that this was due to a new political context, including varying party expectations and the opposition’s focus on the 43% threshold.
TI launched its long-term observation with the start of the campaign, engaging 10 observers, and will be publishing reports before the voting day on the misuse of administrative resources and party financing, key focus areas of the watchdog. In addition, the organization is again running a live blog to update on violations.
On the voting day, the watchdog will deploy up to 300 observers, including 200 static observers to monitor precincts across the country and 40 mobile groups. TI will also observe the enforcement of new election restrictions introduced through recent legislative changes.
Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA)
GYLA has been leading the long-term observation through its nine regional offices across Georgia. The particular focus of the CSO in both long and short-term observation will go to so-called “problematic municipalities,” involving the areas and districts with a record of tense races in the past elections and/or with profound trends of using pressure or other illegal means during the campaign.
The regional offices will be again involved in monitoring on the voting day, with all information sent and reported through the central Tbilisi office. The watchdog will deploy 350 observers in the short-term mission, including both static observers and mobile groups.
Throughout the voting day, the mission plans to cover about 1/3 of the precincts countrywide, and GYLA observers will be also stationed at District Election Commissions and the Central Election Commission after 8 pm, watching the process of adopting summary protocols and other documentation.
Public Movement – Multinational Georgia (PMMG)
PMMG, also a longtime observer, will again channel its efforts to eastern/southern parts of the country, covering all municipalities of the Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions, as well as certain parts of Kakheti and Shida Kartli. The long-term observation with 21 observers started in June and mainly focuses on the misuse of administrative resources. The watchdog has already released an interim report about the campaign environment.
Arnold Stepanyan, PMMG head, told Civil.ge that during the campaign the watchdog will also closely observe the participation of ethnic minorities in the election processes, including at all levels of election commissions, as well as gender representation in minority-settled areas and issues of providing relevant information in the languages of ethnic minorities. On the voting day, the watchdog will deploy 300 short-term observers, focusing on all election-related issues.
Further Local Initiatives
Last year’s controversies over the legitimacy of election results led political parties and civil activists to take individual initiatives in documenting violations. For example, Shame Movement, local activists’ group, together with Public Initiatives Association, launched Civil Election Commission, an undertaking that aims to document and respond to potential violations around the municipal elections, as well as provide alternative vote count and reporting.
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