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New Council of Europe report criticizes election code

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Monday, January 30
A report delivered to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has found that Georgia's new election code "is not fully in line with European standards."

Although the report recognises that the current administration successfully followed the Assembly's recommendation to draft new election laws, they identified a number of concerns with the legislation. The authors expressed disappointment that the drafting process was not an inclusive process, once based on a wide consensus of electoral stakeholders. "This [consensus] is necessary to ensure the prerequisite public trust in the electoral system and the conduct of the elections. Especially in countries with a polarised political climate, the drafting of an election code is a de facto part of the electoral process itself. It is therefore regrettable that no consensus could be reached on the new election code and especially on the election system by which the new parliament is to be elected," the report reads.

It cites the largest shortcoming of the new code as the difference in size of the majoritarian constituencies vis-a-vis the old system. The difference exceeds the European maximum allowable variance of 10% to 15%, and contradicts the principle of equal weight for each vote.

Regarding judicial issues, PACE representatives claimed that police fail to properly investigate crimes, and that the prison system is overcrowded and poorly managed. Acknowledging the administration's efforts with regards to prison reform, the authors emphasize that more reform "will be very difficult to achieve without a change in sentencing guidelines and practices, which to date are resulting in an ever increasing prison population.”

The Georgian government has made statements in the past which maintain that all changes in the election code have been carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the international community and the active involvement of the Venice Commission, and that the new election code will guarantee free and impartial elections.

Opposition members are optimistic that the Assembly report indicates that the Council of Europe will demand changes to the legislation. However, Republican Party leader Tina Khidasheli was concerned that the report's findings were poorly covered in the Georgian media.

The code has been heavily criticized by Georgian NGOs and watch-dog groups, and confirmation of their concerns by PACE has emboldened them to step up their efforts to convince lawmakers to revise the legislation. The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, and Transparency International Georgia all claim that the changes tightens party funding rules and apply undemocratic restrictions on organizations or individuals “directly or indirectly” linked with political parties, and “will have a restrictive effect on civil-political activities.”

The groups also hope to address the lack of information about the changes in the public sphere. Meetings with local and international organizations, diplomatic representatives, and other groups will be planned, in addition to a public awareness campaign to be launched in February.