By Ronald J. McNamara and Orest Deychakiwsky
For the second time this year, Georgians went to the polls in national elections, casting ballots on May 21, 2008, for a new slimmed down 150–seat unicameral parliament, known as the Supreme Council, with half filled through proportional party lists and the other by single-mandate districts. Previous parliaments comprised 235 members. Timing of the parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for fall 2008, became a contentious issue late last year as violence erupted on the streets of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, leading to early presidential elections and a plebiscite on when to hold the parliamentary contest. Incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili was reelected president in the January 5 election, narrowly escaping a second round. According to final results reported by the Central Election Commission, Saakashvili won 53.47 percent of the vote, with 70 percent of those casting ballots supporting the holding of early parliamentary elections. On March 21, the president called for the elections to be held in two months time.
Mr. João Soares of Portugal, a Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly at the time, was appointed as Special Coordinator of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office to lead short-term observers of the OSCE’s International Election Observation Mission (IEOM). In all, the OSCE fielded over 550 observers from 48 countries, including a parliamentary component of over 100 drawn from the OSCE PA, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the NATO PA.
International observers, including two members of the Helsinki Commission staff, participated in an extensive program of briefings in Tbilisi prior to election day, including presentations by the ODIHR Core Team and the Central Elections Commission as well as a wide range of international and domestic NGO experts. Observers also heard from representatives of most of the political parties and blocs fielding candidates: Georgian Politics, the Republic Party, the Rights Alliance, the Labor Party, the United National Movement – for Victorious Georgia, the Georgian Union of Sportsmen, the United Opposition bloc, the All Georgian National Party of Radical Democrats, the Christian-Democratic Movement, and Our Country. In all, nine political parties and three blocs were registered for the parliamentary contest, including the newly formed Christian-Democratic Movement.
In all, IEOM observer teams visited nearly 1,500 of the country’s 3,641 polling stations on election day. Helsinki Commission staff observed in the Marneuli Rayon, south of Tbilisi, a predominately Azeri region bordering on neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to the 2002 national census, the Azeri minority constituted 6.5 percent of Georgia’s population. This rural agricultural region comprises the District Election Commission 22, with 84 individual polling stations for slightly over 90,000 registered voters. Interest in observing in the Marneuli region was based in part on irregularities observed during the January 2008 presidential election. Several polling stations, at that time, registered voter turnouts in excess of 100 percent, with over 88 percent of the vote going to Saakashvili, exceptionally high when compared with other districts in that part of the country.
Commission staff observed an opening and the voting in nearly a dozen individual polling stations throughout the rayon, or county. Among those sites visited was the area’s largest military installation, where soldiers lined up to cast their votes as senior officers chatted outside of the station. With a few exceptions, the balloting was conducted in an orderly manner and in line with CEC procedures. An exception was a polling station close to the Armenian border in which pandemonium prevailed and a number of serious irregularities were observed by the team. Conspicuously, ballots at the station and other voting materials lacked the required serial numbers. Domestic party observers were vocally protesting procedural problems at the station as one from their ranks was repeatedly rebuffed by the precinct chairman when the observer sought to lodge a formal written complaint in the official journal. Local police were called to the scene, though they stayed at a distance as long as the Helsinki Commission team was present. The closing and tabulation observed at another station proceeded smoothly, with good cooperation among the poll workers.
The following day, on May 22, Soares held a press conference in Tbilisi to issue a statement of preliminary conclusions on behalf of the IEOM: “Overall, these elections clearly offered an opportunity for the Georgian people to choose their representatives from amongst a wide array of choices. The authorities and other political stakeholders made efforts to conduct these elections in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments. The International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) identified a number of problems which made this implementation uneven and incomplete.”
Addressing a protest rally on May 26, Levan Gachechiladze, the leader of the United Opposition called for annulment of the election results. “We will not let a handful of criminals run the country,” he told supporters. Fellow opposition leader Davit Gamkrelidze told the crowd, “I have no right to enter a parliament that is the product of illegality, terror, and an illicit government. I cannot become a member of a parliament that is illegitimate, unlawful, and which is a product of Soviet-style elections.”
On June 5, the Central Election Commission issued a release summarizing the elections results. According to the CEC, four political parties passed the 5 percent threshold based on the proportional system: United National Movement (59.18%), or 48 seats, the United Opposition (17.73%), 15 seats, Christian-Democrat (8.66%) and the Labor Party (7.44%), 6 seats each. The results of single-mandate contests were: 71 seats for the United National Movement, 2 seats for the United Opposition, and 2 for the Republican Party. In total, the United National Movement won 119 seats, a constitutional majority. The United Opposition leadership moved quickly to request the cancellation of the mandates for seats won by the party, precluding individuals lower on their list from occupying the seats. Four of those elected, however, broke ranks with their leaders, refusing to relinquish their seats. The Labor party chose to neither cancel nor occupy their seats in parliament. Meanwhile, the Christian-Democratic party positioned itself to foster unity among the small group of non-UNM members.
Results for Marneuli showed overwhelming support for the ruling UNM, with 84.49%, far exceeding the level for the country as a whole. The only other party to pass the threshold in the region was the United Opposition, with 6.79%. Similar lopsided tallies favoring the UNM were recorded in six other regions, notably the predominately Armenian Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, where support for the ruling party surpassed 90 percent. Traditionally, areas of Georgia with high concentrations of ethnic minorities, such as these, have turned out in large numbers, voting overwhelmingly for whatever the ruling party was at the time.
The newly-elected parliament held its inaugural session on June 7. In remarks before the new parliament, President Saakashvili acknowledged the challenges facing the country’s elected leadership, “The entire world is looking at Georgia today. The Georgian people have overcome the most difficult political crisis last autumn at the expense of democratic consolidation. We have managed to overcome the political crisis with the help of democratic institutions, to solve all problems through peaceful democratic methods.” He continued, “our obligation is to make our compatriots feel that they are represented in the country’s governance; even the smallest group should feel that it has the right to be represented in the country’s governance, in making decisions about the future of our country.” Saakashvili concluded by stressing the importance of undertaking further reforms and fostering unity.
In testimony before Congress several weeks after the elections, Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, remarked, “Georgian democracy continues to lack a necessary element – a credible and viable opposition – and the United National Movement and the United Opposition share the blame for this shortcoming. Without a viable opposition, an empowered, independent parliament and strong, credible judiciary, and a reform process that respects dissenting voices, democracy will not be consolidated.”
While political polarization persists in the country, it was less palpable at the time of the parliamentary elections than in January, when there were widespread concerns that the violent street clashes of November could be reignited. Heightened tensions over the breakaway region of Abkhazia and the possibility of war erupting with Russia following the April 20 shoot down of an unmanned aerial vehicle by a Russian fighter over Georgian airspace seemed to trump domestic political squabbling in the lead up to the parliamentary elections. Overcoming political turmoil and polarization in the country takes on even greater importance in the face of ever-growing Russian threats and provocative actions undermining Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The Georgian authorities should build upon the reforms instituted in electoral laws and procedures prior to the parliamentary elections. A lingering concern that deserves attention is the low confidence among voters regarding the electoral process and skepticism regarding the role of the international community. Similarly, allegations of campaign irregularities from recent elections, including use of administrative resources by the ruling party; campaigning by state officials; intimidation of state workers, especially teachers; pressure on businesses to make campaign “donations”; unbalanced television coverage on private stations; ruling party dominance of elections commissions; and lingering errors on voters lists should be taken seriously and dealt with by the authorities.
These and other concerns are discussed in greater detail in the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued by the IEOM on May 22, 2008. A final report on the May 21 parliamentary elections is expected to be released by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights shortly.