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After a flawed campaign, will elections fall short?

By Shorena Labadze and Winston Featherly
Wednesday, May 21
Today’s parliamentary elections follow months of political unrest, and offer a chance at a fortifying stride forward for Georgian democracy—but also the possibility of inflaming tensions by falling short of a free and fair poll.

The Saakashvili administration has committed itself to holding clean elections following a presidential vote which observers called democratic but flawed.

In this exercise of Georgia’s fledgling democratic institutions, the process is as important as the results. But many campaigners, observers and voters say the weeks leading up to this election were plagued by flaws the state has repeatedly pledged to stamp out.

President Mikheil Saakashvili has issued stern calls for clean elections, promising to prosecute offenders.

“All those who hamper [free elections] will be held responsible,” Saakashvili declared from the seaside town of Batumi on May 5.

Describing free elections as a matter of “national security,” the president said the country must hold “exemplary parliamentary elections.”

Georgian allies and NATO officials have tied membership in the alliance—a critical goal for this administration—to improving election conduct.

“We will protect [the election] with our teeth to ensure that Georgia has a future. This is my call, pledge and warning.” Saakashvili said then. “I think everybody should understand that I am not joking when I speak. Holding free elections in Georgia is an issue of our dignity.”

“Show us actions instead of words,” responds Davit Zurabishvili of the Republicans, a moderate opposition party. “Pressure continues [on campaigners]. Nothing has changed.”

Abuses of administrative power

OSCE/ODIHR, which is running the top observer mission for these elections, documented numerous allegations of misbehavior in its second interim report.

“These include widespread intimidation, among others of candidates, party activists and state employees, especially teachers; illegal campaigning by public servants; and abuse of administrative resources,” the report reads.

The OSCE team said they substantiated “several” of the allegations.

There have been many more complaints left unconfirmed by the observer mission, and few examples of ruling party candidates or their supporters being disciplined for perceived or real violations.

One notable exception is in Tsageri district, where opposition politicians released an audiotape allegedly of the government’s incumbent threatening to fire state workers if the ruling party performs under par in today’s election.

“80 percent of people living in Tsageri and lower Tsageri work in state offices. If 80 percent of the votes aren’t cast for the [ruling party]…you will all [be fired],” said the man in the tape, which was released May 5. The incumbent denied the accusation, but withdrew from the race the same day.

Opposition politicians say the episode highlights the government’s advantage in—and alleged abuse of—administrative power.

“Governors and members of the police force have played a crucially active role in the National Movement’s election campaign,” said Davit Usupashvili, leader of the Republicans, at a press briefing earlier this month.

The OSCE monitoring mission confirmed several specific cases of intimidation, including a regional schoolteacher who was threatened with dismissal after switching her support from the ruling party to the Republicans.

Sozar Subari, the country’s human rights ombudsman, told newspaper Kviris Palitra that village teachers in particular are targets for pressure.

“My employees monitoring the campaign have said there is large-scale use of administrative resources,” he said.

The Education Ministry has released a statement expressing “deep concern with regard to [Subari’s statements] about alleged political pressure on the employees of the education system… The ministry will take all the measures necessary to eradicate the cases of political intimidation.”

The OSCE report also cited a “credible witness” who said a government candidate offered to release her arrested son in exchange for several hundred pledged votes. That incident, the OSCE said, was just one of many similar alleged cases.

Unbalanced media coverage persists

In a rural eastern district, local Republican candidate Merab Katamadze claims his party’s activists have been called into police stations for questioning.

Katamadze also said he has been blocked from running ads on the local television channel, and that opposition campaigns are being studiously ignored by local media outlets.

The OSCE observer mission found the largest private national stations gave lopsided airtime and favorable coverage to the government’s campaign. It did not monitor local news outlets.

Media monitoring, its report said, found “a lack of balance in the prime-time news coverage of political subjects and candidates on most monitored TV stations.”

Physical violence not uncommon

There are also widespread instances of vandalism and assaults, some petty and some violent.

Posters for the opposition are routinely defaced or pasted over with National Movement advertisements, prompting one candidate to threaten retaliation if his posters continued being torn down.

“It is deeply-rooted in Georgia that the staff of [political opponents] tears down banners and posters of majoritarian candidates. I warn [my opponent]: if even one poster is torn down, he will be responsible and I promise him, every one of his posters will be swept down,” said Kakha Kukava, who is running with the nine-party opposition coalition.

Representatives of the populist Labor Party say a campaign office in a Tbilisi district was broken into on May 3, with a window smashed and a television and documents taken.

“If the robbers were simply robbers, they would have broken into the National Movement’s office first, which is situated in front of our office,” said party representative Giorgi Gugava.

Subari, the human rights ombudsman, said the situation is “especially dire in the regions” of Georgia. The chairman of a rural district election commission, he claimed, actually stabbed a campaign worker.

Yesterday there was another stabbing in the capital Tbilisi, when ruling party staffers brawled with United Opposition workers at a polling station, leaving an opposition supporter in the hospital.

Tamuna Rukhadze, a representative for a United Opposition candidate, said that National Movement activists rushed into the precinct station when they learned the opposition was filing a complaint.

Fault on all sides

The opposition may have borne the brunt of the harassment, but nor was their campaign beyond reproach.

The nine-party opposition coalition’s youth wing has repeatedly demonstrated outside the home of the Central Election Commission chairman, loudly declaiming him to be a “thief” and “vote-rigger.”

The OSCE’s interim report cited those rallies as an example of aggressive opposition campaigning.

Levan Gachechiladze, the top name on the opposition coalition’s party list, has repeatedly threatened to use force against election officials, ruling party members and journalists if he perceives them to be undermining the elections.

No high-profile prosecutions

Election violations have largely gone without visible punishment. The OSCE report faulted election commissions and courts for ignoring or rejecting complaints filed during the campaign, “particularly those against [the ruling party] and public officials.” About 100 complaints had been filed with commissions and courts by May 9, according to the report.

“In various cases, they have refused to hear relevant witnesses or view documented evidence, failed to address all relevant facts, applied unsound interpretations of the law, ignored its spirit, or failed to provide legal reasoning.”

Local observers complain that investigations are slow to start. Eka Siradze, the executive director of the Fair Elections NGO, said her NGOs observers witnessed a break-in of opposition campaign offices last week, and urged police to investigate.

There have been no high-profile prosecutions of campaign violations during January’s presidential election, despite video evidence of wrongdoing in some cases. Nor have there been any during this campaign, with the exception of the candidate in Tsageri.

Interior Ministry official Shota Khizanishvili said investigations are underway.

“I can’t single out a specific case, but investigations have begun into these incidents,” he said in a telephone conversation, before apologizing for poor reception and hanging up the phone.

With much riding not just on the outcome of today’s elections, but also its conduct, the government faces challenges to its credibility both from observers and a fiercely critical opposition.

Rukhadze, the United Opposition representative, said her bloc is ready to “stand up for our voters” today.

“There is a lot of pressure, there is a lot of falsification right now, before the election,” she said last night. “We are expecting [that today] there will be all kinds of falsifications.”