Among various concerns pointed out during 2021 local election runoffs, there was one that was propelled into the particular spotlight this year: mysterious election watchdogs doing something else than what they were supposed to.
Reputed monitoring missions, both local and international, have noted persistent and pervasive practices of observers from these organizations interfering with the voting process, including through voter tracking, influencing voters’ free exercise of choice, mobilizing voters, etc. They are believed to be acting as proxies of larger political parties.
Some 88 local observer missions have signed up at the Central Election Commission of Georgia (CEC) for the two rounds of the 2021 municipal vote, among them, there are only a few professional observation groups that have been doing the job for decades. Dozens catch attention with their large numbers of registered observers – sometimes reaching several thousand – when the most respected organizations can only afford to field several hundred trained observers at best.
Election laws allow political parties to deploy up to two representatives each to the polling station where the party or its candidate is on the ballot. This was done to prevent the party activists from overcrowding the precincts, creating tensions, and intimidating the voters. Election observers suspect that the parties simply found the way around that restriction by registering the new “observer groups.”
In their preliminary findings after the runoffs, the international observer missions noted among concerns “the persistent practice of representatives of observer organizations acting as party supporters, at times interfering with the process.” The report said that in 53% of visited polling stations, “persons accredited either as citizen observers or as media representatives were de facto representing the interests of contestants, at times interfering in the [voting] process.” Their interference continued during the ballot counting. This was consistent with the findings after the first round.
But there are suspicions of the more sinister impact of these rogue observers on the whole election process: when the Central Election Commission (CEC) invited the local watchdogs to form a “consultation group of experts” in August, in accordance with the new election laws, two most reputed watchdogs, Transparency International Georgia and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), soon quit, citing, among others, serious questions concerning the “credibility, good reputation, activities and financial transparency” of the “absolute majority” of 15 organizations that were convened.
CEC adjusted the selection rules, allowing 2/3 majority of the participating NGOs to select consultation group members – instead of initially agreed on consensus procedure, giving the groups with a questionable reputation the chance to dominate the decision-making. Civil Election Commission, a watchdog founded by civil activists, published findings claiming that 9 out of 12 organizations that remained in the process of forming the CEC’s consultation group had received thousands in CEC funding for various projects over the years.
Union Green Earth is one of such suspicious entities: it fielded 3,212 registered observers in the first round of local elections, and 2,066 in the runoffs. The organization was registered in 1994, making it one of the most ancient non-governmental groups. But the key original objective – as the name attests – was to promote environment-friendly energy solutions, but also human rights and – notably – election observation. Now claiming more than a decade of experience in election monitoring, the organization offers to install solar power systems, and has a long list of known foreign donors, presumably for expensive energy-related projects. The observers say Union Green Earth has acted in the interest of the ruling party during these polls.
Social Union “Georgia First” is a younger organization, founded in 2016. It deployed, respectively, 2,338 and 1,590 registered observers in the first round and runoffs. But the group’s activities remain obscure. The online resources are meager. This group has apparently cooperated with Union Green Earth and other, even lesser-known groups and got state funding for voter education projects.
There are other groups, such as Politics and Law Observer (5,161 deployed in the first round, 7,110 for runoffs). Its former head Grigol Gagnidze is now leading the Georgian Barristers and Lawyers International Observatory, yet another watchdog with 1,668 registered observers in the runoffs, suspected of mobilizing voters for the Georgian Dream.
Opposite allegations have also been voiced. Early in September, the Georgian Dream published a list of more than a dozen election watchdogs, linking them with the opposition parties, mostly the United National Movement, by citing party support or affiliations of respective NGO leaders. These watchdogs, such as Social Environment (I round – 1,150, runoffs – 1,254), Youth for European Future (I – 61, II – 467), Youth Initiative for Future Georgia (I – 602, II – 762), have also caught attention for election day violations such as alleged voter tracking – taking down the identities of voters who showed up (commonly understood as being the tool for voter intimidation).
These groups fade into oblivion once the elections are over, but their emergence and existence may do more harm than merely interfering with the voting process. For one, some are a part of the growing plethora of GONGOs that have been known worldwide to form the artificial, loyal “civil society” that governments use to cancel out genuine scrutiny and criticism by flooding the information space with conflicting reports.
Another effect is the impact they have on public perception. The international missions also said in their preliminary findings for Georgia’s local elections that campaigns targeting observers and “the publication of lists alleging pro-opposition and pro-government biases among observers, contributed to the overall perception that observer groups were being used for partisan purposes, potentially negatively impacting public confidence in the role of observers, and undermining genuine observation efforts.”
It is concerning that the malign practices of dubious election watchdogs have grown over time to include interference with voting, voter intimidation and control, and discrediting the credibility of genuine observation missions. These groups seem to have penetrated the policy process aimed at reforming the legislation and parasite the process aimed at ensuring fairer and freer elections. They also risk turning initiatives aimed at broader inclusion of the civil sector into a farce.