Interview with Jillian Stirk, Head of ODIHR Election Observation Mission

On October 31, Georgians are heading to the polls to elect the 10th convocation of their 150-member parliament. The elections are held through a significantly modified electoral system – following months-long protests and lengthy foreign mediated negotiations between the ruling Georgian Dream and opposition parties, the Georgian Parliament increased its proportional representation from 77 to 120 MPs and decreased majoritarian seats from 73 to 30.

To reflect on the pre-election campaign environment, we have approached Jillian Stirk, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission.

ODIHR launched its Election Observation Mission to Georgia on September 25. Could you tell us how the OSCE/ODIHR will monitor October 31 general election in Georgia and at what level? What are the specific areas of focus of your mission?

We have  13 experts in Tbilisi and 27 long term observers who are spread out across the country reporting on local developments. We cover issues both from the national and the regional level. Here in Tbilisi, we have a political analyst, electoral analyst, legal analyst and media analyst, and then the deputy head of mission, and myself. We also have approximately 30 Georgian staff members working with the mission.

We are looking at issues like election administration, the implementation of the amendments to the Electoral Code, which is particularly important because of the changes that took place last summer; the overall conduct of the campaign, campaign finance; we follow allegations of violations of the Electoral Code or any disputes that arise. We also monitor the media coverage.

We have been meeting with the authorities, from the State Auditor to the Prosecutor General, to the Legal Affairs Committee at the Parliament, as well as the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Health and the Interior. I also had a call with the Prime Minister. We held meetings with quite a large number of political parties – we have already seen approximately 20 parties, and are open to meet anyone who would like to see us. And then we are meeting with civil society. Georgia has a rich civil society, and we are listening to people from many different organizations.

We have been here about three weeks now and we are starting to put together a picture of the electoral campaign period. And as I said, we have our long-term observers in the field who are doing the same things at a regional level as we are doing here in Tbilisi.

Just a few days ago, ODIHR announced about canceling its plans for short-term observation for the Georgia mission. To what degree would cutting 350 short-term observers monitoring election day developments affect your mission’s observing capacity?

As you probably know, it is not just the mission to Georgia will not have short-term observers. There are a number of other elections going on in the OSCE area where the situation is the same. We were unable to confirm a sufficient number of STOs to provide a meaningful observation. The various travel restrictions right now in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic are of course a factor.

In terms of what that means for our mission – we continue to do the work that we came here to do. In terms of the pre-electoral period, it really does not change anything that we do at all. We have our LTOs who are out in the field and who are reporting what they see on a daily basis, they are meeting with local authorities, the electoral authorities, including district and precinct electoral commissions, local politicians and so on, and are reporting any violations that they might identify. Although we will not be able to do a comprehensive election day observation, we will visit a limited number of polling stations.

It means that we won’t be able to do a systematic data analysis of what we are seeing, but we would still be doing the qualitative, rather than quantitative observation on election day.

I would like to underline that the lack of short-term observers doesn’t change the fundamental nature of what we are doing here. I think that the lead up to [election day] and then reporting that we will do after the election, is so important in terms of an overall impact on the process. We will issue a Preliminary Statement on the day after the elections which will reflect what we have observed. And then there will be a final report that comes a number of weeks after that as well.

2018 Presidential Elections has been quite a challenging election for Georgia. The ODIHR’s final report elaborated on various recommendations for the Georgian authorities to implement, including the balanced representation in the electoral commissions, changing complaint procedures, and efficient oversight on their campaign financing. To what degree is Georgia meeting these recommendations for the upcoming parliamentary elections?

I think you raise a really important point here, which is around the role of ODIHR. We always like to say that we’re not just here to observe what happens on election day. We are here to observe the campaign period, the pre-electoral period, which in some respects is often almost important as what happens on election day. And our role doesn’t end when the election is over because we produce a final report which has a series of recommendations which suggest possible improvements to the electoral procedure. We have an interim report coming out soon, and one of the things that it will look at is the extent to which the authorities have adopted previous ODIHR recommendations.

Of course, we look at each election on its own merits, but nonetheless one of the things we will be looking at is the extent to which ODIHR recommendations have been adopted.

Certainly, some of those recommendations have been implemented during the electoral reform process that took place in spring and summer. Others still remain to be addressed, but it is up to Georgians to decide how they wish to address those recommendations.

What are the key challenges and the improvements your interlocutors are raising during the meetings? What are their key concerns?

I would say they all have a slightly different take on the situation. Many of them want to tell us about their political platforms and the issues that they are pursuing in the election. Some of them have also raised questions about, issues such as transparency of campaign finance. We have also heard allegations of intimidation and violence.

Both local and international watchers of Georgia are noting that Georgian media is polarized, especially ahead of the elections. How would you describe Georgia’s media landscape ahead of October 31 election?

Well, I think it would be fair to say that there is a degree of polarization in the media. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone. One always hopes that there is a lively debate around election time, but the degree of polarization does have implications for the nature of information that is available to the public. I think this is not something necessarily unique to Georgia.

Just a few months ago, we have witnessed a massive data leak, allegedly the data from the CEC, which the CEC denied afterwards. Foreign election interference in elections is a common topic around much of the world. How ready is Georgia, in your view, for resisting the foreign interference in its elections, including, in terms of readiness of its electoral administration?

As someone who has only been in the country for three weeks, I don’t think it would be fair to try to comment on overall readiness. But what I can say is, that the authorities we have spoken to have all been seized of this issue, and they have all raised it with us, as something they are much aware of. This is not something that is unique to Georgia. It was good to hear that people are very much aware of the challenges of cyber-security.

The election observation missions in Georgia for years raised the issue of inclusion of underrepresented –  women, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as the LGBT community – in the elections. How could you reflect on that?

This is a really important issue for ODIHR and one that I’m personally very committed to, having done some work on diversity and inclusion in my own country. We took note of the decision to require one out of every four candidates to be of the opposite gender and I believe there has also recently been a court ruling to say that this actually only applies to women, not men. We see this tool as a positive step to encourage more women to get involved in politics. In terms of involvement of ethnic minorities, this is something that we are following. We have an expert on national minority issues who is joining our mission next week and will be focusing specifically on that issue. I am glad you raised this topic because I have a number of meetings set up over the course of the next week or so with various organizations that address inclusion of women, national minorities, persons with disabilities and other marginalized communities. This will certainly be something that we will be looking at in the context of the election.

What would be your recommendation to both, the ruling Georgian Dream and the opposition parties with having some two weeks now left before the elections?

What we always hope is that our presence here and all of the work that we do can contribute to an open and transparent electoral process.

Political party leaders have a special responsibility in this respect to comply with both, international obligations and expectations and also, the national legislation.

This is the time when tensions always run high in the pre-election period and again that’s not unique to Georgia, but to simply remind people that there is the integrity of the electoral process at stake here, and we encourage all stakeholders to conduct themselves in a way that strengthens the democratic process.

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