The previous parliamentary election in May 2008 was described by international monitors as failing "to instill broad confidence amongst election stakeholders and the public." Two of the three opposition parties that won parliamentary representation under the proportional system rejected the official results as rigged and vowed to boycott the workings of a parliament they considered lacking in legitimacy.
President Mikheil Saakashvili declared last month that all Georgian officials have an obligation to ensure that the upcoming parliamentary elections are “truly exemplary.” He vowed that he “will ensure that all political forces have equal opportunities and that the entire electoral process is carried out in open, public debates” and that “any attempts at ballot-rigging and bribery will be punished with the full force of the law.”
Saakashvili’s spokeswoman, Manana Manjgaladze, described the EEM proposal on July 17 as “important” and offering “equal conditions for all the political parties during the entire electoral period.” The U.S. ambassador and European Union delegation head in Tbilisi had expressed concern that the new Georgian election law passed in late December 2011 after 14 months of sometimes acrimonious negotiations failed “to address perceptions of inequality within the electoral system.”
Two opposition parties represented in the outgoing parliament, the New Rightists and the Christian-Democratic Movement, have indicated that they will sign the EEM’s declaration, as has the National Democratic Party. But no party has yet done so. This Affects You Too, a coalition of NGOs and media organizations established in February to lobby for amendments to the controversial Law on Political Parties, has expressed reservations.
The first point of the EEM declaration underscores the importance for Georgia’s further democratic development of ensuring that the electoral process is free, fair, and peaceful. It abjures violence, aggression, and the recourse to hate speech.
The second point abjures vote-buying.
The third point pledges to abide by recommendations by the Central Election Commission and the governmental Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections aimed at “restricting” (but not banning completely) the use of administrative resources. Successive international election monitors’ detailed assessments of previous elections in Georgia have criticized the abuse of administrative resources by the ruling party.
The Georgian Dream coalition headed by billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili considers unacceptable the fourth point proposed by the EEM, under which the signatories pledge in advance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the election results announced by the Central Election Commission provided that “credible” election monitoring organizations do not question their accuracy.
The coalition’s misgivings with regard to that point are understandable. The International Election Observation Missions (IEOMs) fielded by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in tandem with observers from the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe highlight individual shortcomings in the election campaign, voting, and vote count. They may on occasion say the process failed in some respects to meet generally accepted standards for a free, fair, and democratic election, but they do not generally offer any opinion as to whether the violations registered call into question the legitimacy of the results.
As noted above, some Georgian opposition parties challenged the official results of the May 2008 parliamentary ballot. Businessman Levan Gachechiladze, Saakashvili’s closest challenger in the January 2008 presidential ballot, similarly alleged that the official results were rigged to give Saakashvili a first-round victory and avoid a runoff.
In its July 16 response to the EEM declaration, This Affects You Too acknowledged the need for all parties to reach agreement on conditions for holding free and fair elections but says those conditions should not be dictated by a single political force. It lists nine points it thinks all parties should agree on and a further eight conditions it wants the authorities to agree to abide by. They include promoting political culture, including through encouraging issue-based campaigning; providing equal working conditions for journalists covering campaign events; and not misusing media outlets for campaign purposes or for misinforming the public.
Maia Panjikidze, press spokesperson for Georgian Dream, said the current wording of the declaration is unacceptable but the coalition is ready to participate in drafting such a declaration if civil society representatives and international organizations are also involved.
But prominent EEM parliamentarian Akaki Minashvili told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that detailed discussion of the four points is contingent on parties accepting it in principle.
“If you don’t agree with the principle, what’s the point in discussing the details of that principle?” he asked rhetorically, adding that “we expect that those parties that want to participate in the election and want a fair competition will sign the declaration.”
How the EEM’s proposals will contribute to ensuring the election is indeed “truly exemplary” is not clear, however, given that they will not be legally binding, and it remains unclear who will monitor compliance with them. As Conservative Party leader Zviad Dzidziguri observed a year ago, “It is impossible to guarantee free and fair elections by sitting around the negotiating table wearing a tie."