Int’l Election Observation Mission Says Fundamental Freedoms Were Respected this Weekend

We observed an election process where contestants had the opportunity to campaign freely, and in which fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were generally respected, - said Corien Jonker, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR long-term election observation mission. “The predominant position of the ruling party is clear, and this affected different aspects of the elections. This predominance, however, comes with a responsibility to ensure that the opportunities of other contestants are not limited”.

Fundamental freedoms were generally respected in the 21 October local elections in Georgia, and candidates were able to campaign freely, the OSCE/ODIHR reports. “Efficient administration of the elections and accurate voter registration contributed to the quality of the process,” the international observers concluded in a preliminary statement released on Sunday. “The entire context of the elections was shaped by the dominance of the ruling party,” the observers said.

“Although partisan, increasingly free and active media fostered greater political debate, ” the statement went on. “Election day generally proceeded in an orderly manner, although negative evaluations of counting in some polling stations indicated some irregularities and difficulties in completing results protocols”.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) and lower election administration bodies are said to have worked in a timely, efficient and professional manner. “While the CEC generally enjoyed confidence among stakeholders, some opposition contestants questioned the impartiality of the election administration, especially in relation to the precinct election commission members appointed by the district commissions”.

Prior to the elections, the CEC provided training for all levels of election administration, ran a comprehensive voter information campaign, and took initiatives to facilitate the participation of voters with disabilities.

The campaign was said to have been largely subdued outside Tbilisi and for the most part calm, although there were a few “violent incidents”. Along with cases of pressure on voters, cases of the misuse of state resources were also reported, the observers said.

“From the Congress perspective, misuse of public resources at the local level and the further consolidation of local self-government in Georgia need to be addressed after these elections. We remain willing to assist the authorities in their endeavours,” Stewart Dickinson, Spokesperson on Observation of Local and Regional Elections, said on behalf of the Congress Electoral Assessment team.

While there have been notable improvements in the freedom of media, broadcast media were perceived by observers as politically affiliated. Media monitoring showed that most of the media focused on the major election contestants, providing them with the opportunity to convey their messages through debates and talk-shows, in addition to advertisements. Monitoring identified a notable absence of critical and analytical reporting by the national public broadcaster, while coverage by the most-watched broadcasters, Imedi and Rustavi 2, varied significantly, with each favoring a certain political side.

There were significant differences in the level of donations to campaigns, with the ruling party receiving 91% of private contributions. The State Audit Office, mandated to oversee campaign finance, is said to have worked in a professional manner, but the absence of deadlines for examining financial reports and publishing conclusions before election day limited transparency. Most recommendations by the OSCE/ODIHR and the Council of Europe Group States against Corruption (GRECO) in this area remain unaddressed.

The report noted the recent removal of a two-year residency requirement had significantly improved the inclusiveness of the candidate registration process, and legal amendments allowed independent candidates to run for mayor. Female candidates were underrepresented in most races. A number of contestants withdrew their candidacies, some, reportedly, under pressure.

The legal framework is said by observers to be comprehensive and provides an “adequate basis for the conduct of elections in line with democratic principles”. However, restrictions on voter and candidate rights, as well as gaps and inconsistencies, are said to remain. The July 2017 amendments to the Election Code were mainly technical and are said not to have addressed a number of previous key OSCE/ODIHR and Council of Europe recommendations.

In an inclusive process, the CEC accredited 30 international and 71 citizen observer organizations. The participation of numerous observers and contestant proxies in all stages of the electoral process contributed to transparency. Observers noted that some accredited media representatives or citizen observers were affiliated with contestants and at times interfered in the process.

More than 1,200 national minority representatives ran as candidates, some24 % of whom where women. A few instances of hate speech, threats, and tensions were noted. The election administration provided ballots, voter information and polling staff training in minority languages.

Mate Foldi

23 October 2017 18:21