Georgia's Choice

Georgian democracy activist Anna Dolidze, on the ground during Saturday’s presidential elections, gives her take on the events of that day and the future of freedom in her country.

On January 5, Georgians went to the polls to vote in extraordinary presidential elections. Results have been counted at two-thirds of polling stations, Mikhail Saakashvili is leading with 51.03 percent while United Opposition candidate Levan Gechechiladze comes second with 25.72 percent. Article 86 of the Georgian Election Code says that the candidate that receives more than half of the vote wins. Saakashvili started to celebrate victory as soon as exit poll results were announced without waiting for the official numbers. Meanwhile, the opposition spoke of widespread violations and held a rally in support of a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes. The much-awaited announcement of final results will determine whether a run-off is possible and clarify the positions of all the main parties. Until then, it is important to reflect on the elections and determine those aspects that cast a shadow on the results.

First there is the question of election violations and the Election Commission's response to them. Although the International Election Observation Mission noted that elections were "in essence consistent with international standards for democratic elections", its report also noted "procedural and organizational shortcomings" both on election day and during campaigning. Many violations noted in the report have become the subject of appeals and complaints by monitoring organizations. Election watchdog Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA) filed 230 complaints just during the polling hours, demanding the invalidation of results from thirty polling stations. There have been a number of cases of illegal campaigning on voting day, widespread police presence in precincts, and procedural and technical violations during voting. Similarly, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) noted serious violations such as voter intimidation, raiding of polling stations, ballot stuffing and lack of application of voter identification procedures.

As was pointed out in the ISFED statement, it is very important "that Election Administration scrupulously adds up election results and makes an adequate reaction to each complaint." Indeed, the annulment of several precinct results on the basis of complaints could have a decisive impact on the election outcome and lead to a run-off. Unfortunately, however, the Election Commission has been less than nonpartisan in its reaction to complaints. For example, several district commissions went ahead and declared GYLA's appeals void without even informing the complainants about the hearing. Similarly, although opposition parties presented significant evidence on election rigging in several districts where incumbents have won with 80 percent margins, it is less likely that the Administration will give those grievances serious consideration.

Election legislation also permits individuals to appeal Commission decisions in common courts. However, the objectivity and independence of judges in deciding election-related matters is in doubt. This is due to the overall lack of independence in the Georgian judiciary. Because none of the complaints by election watchdogs before the election have been adequately addressed by the government, it is natural to expect the same reaction at this stage as well.

Moreover, the political environment prior to elections undermined their fairness. First, the candidates hardly had equal access to the media. The only opposition channel, IMEDI TV, closed due to pressure from the authorities, leaving the five remaining stations to devote their airtime mainly to the ruling party candidate. As the International Elections Observation Mission report points out, "the campaign coverage in news programs lacked balance in most monitored TV channels, with Mr. Saakashvili generally receiving the most coverage."

Second, the campaign period was followed by frequent allegations of intimidation and smear campaigns. Many opposition parties claimed that their supporters were persecuted, intimidated and their offices raided. In none of the cases were the offenders punished. In addition, the campaign period was marked by a bitter confrontation between presidential candidate Patarkatsishvili and the political leadership of the country, which was accompanied by public disclosure of covertly recorded materials, discrediting information and accusations. The exchange further diverted the attention of voters from pressing issues and the various solutions proposed by the candidates.

Third, Saakashvili's campaign was accompanied by wide implementation of social welfare programs. They ranged from a new "cheap credit" initiative, to annulment of electricity and gas arrears, to giving out laptop computers to poor children. As these actions by the government came close to buying votes, the Young Lawyers' Association filed a complaint in the court requesting removal of Saakashvili and Patarkatsishvili from the race. Patarkatsishvili was also implicated for promising to give out material rewards if he was elected. The courts did not agree with GYLA's reasoning. Because Patarkatshvili withdrew from the race on different grounds-due to the publication of information that discredited him-Saakashvili was able to continue using social programs for political gain. It is noteworthy that the practice has been continuing since the Municipal Elections of 2006, when large-scale welfare programs had a defining impact on election outcomes. Unfortunately, such activities did not influence the final assessment of the elections by international organizations. And as it is being tolerated, the trend is likely to continue in the future.