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Fair elections, crucial and promised, are in the government’s hands

Thursday, May 1
Russia’s decision to send another thousand troops into Abkhazia pushed election campaign coverage off Georgian television screens for a day, but this month’s parliamentary elections are as critical as ever.

The government has promised better elections, and they need to deliver. At stake are internal stability and external ambitions.

Opposition politicians—some radical, some reasonable—will decry a government victory on May 21 as the product of fraud. Whether those accusations resonate with voters’ experiences, and find support in observers’ verdicts, will go far in determining the size and staying power of next-day protests in Georgia.

Outside the country, Georgia’s friends have made it clear they need to be able to point to democratic progress, with improving elections as Exhibit A, if they are to continue with strong international support for Tbilisi’s interests. More than one diplomat has linked NATO accession to election performance.

There is some reason for optimism. The Central Election Commission is making laudably visible efforts to improve election day management. Thorough trainings and organizational reforms should help ward off the incompetence and confusion that plagued the January 5 presidential election.

But that election also suffered from blatant local-level fraud and political violence.

The government must take the lead in discouraging vote fraud with high-profile prosecutions of previous violators. It must declare in the strongest terms to village bosses across Georgia that this election will be a clean one. And that must happen now, while the message matters.

Anything less raises doubts over the government’s commitment to free and fair elections.