Georgia's Fragile Democracy

Now that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has announced that the state of emergency in his country will be lifted on Friday, does that mean that the upcoming elections are sure to be free and fair? Not necessarily.

After proclaiming a 15-day state of emergency, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has announced that new elections for both the president and a new parliament will be held on January 5, 2008.

The opposition lauded the announcement. "This is a victory of the people, a demonstration of the people's unity and is a huge success," said MP Giorgi Tsagareishvili of the Movement for a United Georgia Party. Unfortunately, however, there are still many reasons to be skeptical. If a number of issues are left unresolved, the elections could become the mechanism for further legitimizing Saakashvili's political team, rather than moving the country toward democracy.

First of all, it should be stressed that de jure elections are not yet set. According to article 76 of the Georgian Constitution, early presidential elections should be held within 45 days of the resignation of the president. After that, early presidential elections are authorized by the Parliament. Therefore, in order for the January 5 elections to be regarded as officially mandated, President Saakashvili should resign on November 22.  Parliament should then approve the holding of elections. In this case, if he abides by the constitution, Saakashvili will compete as a regular contender and the chair of the Parliament will serve as interim president.

Second, elections can hardly be legitimate when democratic institutions in the country do not function fully. The newly-appointed chairman of the Central Election Administration should explain the readiness of the administration to conduct elections in such a short period, opposition requests for certain guarantees should be met and monitoring organizations must be able to set their own conditions. Unfortunately, there are very limited opportunities to discuss these questions. Also, there are many issues on which the president and majority have yet to make a public commitment. Therefore, only lifting emergency rule immediately will give the public the opportunity to adequately evaluate candidates.

Moreover, there have been many reports of political repression during the emergency. Even before November 7, there were plenty of incidences of threats against and criminal prosecution of those that openly expressed their opposition to the government. Opposition leaders were subpoenaed for questioning and verbally threatened with criminal prosecution. Some demonstrators were summoned to local police districts if it was determined that they took part in the protests. These allegations should be investigated speedily and President Saakashvili should publicly denounce such tactics. Also, the swift lifting of emergency rule is absolutely essential so that these facts can be revealed by the media. Only then will the government be able to say that all citizens can exercise their rights, without fear of repression.

One of the most important requirements for the upcoming elections, if they are to be considered free and fair, is adequate representation of the parties in the electoral administration. It is the parliamentary majority that controls the process of appointment to the Central Election Administration. Its members should be nonpartisan, but because the president and majority are in charge of the process, most are subordinate to the ruling political party. Therefore, to minimize the possibility of election manipulation, it is crucial that the opposition parties have representatives in the Election Administration. Equally important is the clarity of voter lists, as stressed by a number of election monitoring organizations.

The free media must also be permitted to work during the elections. Opposition parties will have very limited access to broadcast media, even after emergency rule expires. As most TV stations are controlled by the government-except TV Imedi, brutally destroyed by riot police-it is crucial that all media (and specifically TV Imedi) are allowed back on air. This morning Imedi was stripped of its broadcasting license, making it unlikely that there will be accurate media coverage of upcoming campaigns and elections. The government does not have the same level of control over the printed press. Nevertheless, newspaper circulation is very low and its influence on public opinion limited.

In addition, holding presidential elections in less than two months in these conditions will give little time for opposition candidates to engage in a full campaign. There will not be enough time.

On the other hand, President Saakashvili still has a great deal of leverage; he could still use the privileges of incumbency to rehabilitate his administration in the eyes of the public, despite the damage stemming from the events of November 7. Saakashvili will try to downgrade the violent crackdown as a misfortune in the foreign media and emphasize the economic achievements of the last four years. Locally, the leadership could prosecute policemen that abused their power. Or scapegoats responsible for the planning and execution of the November 7 clampdown could be vilified. In any event, President Saakashvili will search for ways to restore his reputation in order to gain at least minimal legitimacy before elections.

Also, the possibility of the administration putting pressure on public officials and their families during elections should not be discounted. Hundreds of thousands are employed in public agencies like the army, police, schools and medical institutions. As in the municipal elections of 2006, there might be efforts to influence and organize these groups in support of the incumbent.