Interview | Head of ODIHR Observation Mission Talks October 31 Elections

On October 31, almost two million citizens of Georgia voted to elect 150-member parliament through a significantly modified mixed electoral system. According to preliminary results, ruling Georgian Dream party secured strong lead with 48.24%, while its arch-rival the United National Movement came second with 27.15% of votes. European Georgia, Lelo, Strategy Aghmashenebeli and Alliance of Patriots party are lagging far behind with around 3%. Girchi, ‘the Citizens’ and Labor party also managed to pass 1% threshold.

But the opposition unanimously refuse to enter the new parliament, vowing to hit the streets to demand snap elections. While the opposition do not challenge the fact that GD came first, the key matter at hand is the ability of GD to form the government on its own. In the meantime, 26 key local watchdogs said the polls were “least democratic and free among the elections conducted under the Georgian Dream rule.” The parallel vote tabulation conducted by the respected watchdog, ISFED pointed to a possible 4% discrepancy with CEC results.

To reflect on bitterly contested parliamentary elections, we have approached Jillian Stirk, Head of the ODIHR election observation mission.

ODIHR LEOM has been dispatched to Georgia for some six weeks now. You have been observing the processes in lead up to October 31 vote, as well as Election Day. To what extent did Georgia’s conduct of elections adhere the OSCE commitments?

As we said in our preliminary statement, right up front, we felt the process was competitive, and that fundamental freedoms were respected.

At the same time, the pervasive nature of allegations of intimidation and the blurring of lines between the state and party undermined the confidence in the process.

The preliminary statement highlighted some of the areas we felt went well, meaning some of the technical aspects of administering the election, but then we also raised concerns about other issues. For example, campaign financing was certainly one area of concern and of course, allegations of intimidation both during the pre-election campaign and on Election Day as well.

What were the key tendencies and highlights on the Election Day? Could you please elaborate more on that?

For me, one of the highlights was the fairly large voter turnout, 56 percent – despite the COVID pandemic. So many people turned out to vote under difficult circumstances, and I think that is a signal of how much Georgians attach importance to the democratic process. I was impressed with the way which the polling stations I visited were really trying to manage the process and respect the COVID protocols and keep people safe. I think they were not always able to do that, just given the numbers. But then, there were significant number of allegations of intimidation – political parties, citizen groups associated with political parties, intimidating voters both, inside and outside the polling stations, and that was troubling.

In the preliminary statement ODIHR mission underscored that it would continue observing the tabulation process. This very process proved to be hotly contested and challenged by much of the opposition. How would you describe tabulation process since the voting part of election day was over?

Well, that is our focus right now in this post-electoral period,  following up on any complaints and appeals. One of the messages I have been sending for those unhappy with the process in some way or to those who have concerns, is that there are the mechanisms they need to use to register their concerns. There is a whole set of institutions charged with looking into complaints, and we would encourage people to use them. We would also encourage those institutions to act responsibly, and professionally and to deal with any complaints in a timely manner.

Your preliminary conclusions state that “the longstanding ODIHR and Venice Commission recommendations to simplify the complaints and appeals process, and bring it further in line with international standards and good practice have not been addressed.To what extent, do you think, the opposition’s use of the appeals mechanism could prove effective in addressing the tabulation issues? Would this lead to raising confidence in the process?

Well, our report does highlight some shortcomings in the complaints and appeal process for sure,

but at the same time, if those who have concerns do not use those institutions, it is also very hard for us to assess whether or not they have been living up to their obligations.

This is very much the focus for us right now, it is following that process, and if people choose not to use those institutions, there is nothing for us to assess.

Your report also notes that “fundamental freedoms were mostly respected in a campaign that was largely competitive but intimidation of party supporters and public sector employees was widely reported, with many opposition parties alleging that their supporters and staff were subject to political pressure. Public sector employees, along with vulnerable citizens constitute a significant part of the Georgian population. How do you think, these elements together, could affect the outcome?

When we talk about fundamental freedoms, we refer to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and those freedoms are very important. And as we also pointed out in the report, parties were able to campaign, a number of them held rallies, they were able to conduct campaign activities generally quite freely. There is vibrant media, lots of discussion in the media of these political issues. These are important elements when we talk about fundamental freedoms.

But at the same time, we do notice that there were these allegations of pressure, especially on public sector and some misuse of administrative resources and so on.

When you look at elections and even the democratic process, more generally, it is a bit of a mosaic and it is never all good or all bad. You need to look at the different elements that make up an electoral process, and I think I mentioned in our earlier interview, I see it as a continuum of the campaign, Election Day and then the post-election period. You have to look at the whole package before you can draw any conclusions.

Madame Stirk, what are in your opinion the other key election process areas that should be improved?

One of them is campaign finance, the second is the overall conduct of the campaign and another area we criticized, was the composition of some of the election commissions. Although the Central Election Commission, did meet in open session, we felt that some of the decisions taken there were not necessarily taken in a collegial manner and there could have been a greater degree of transparency.

The dominance of the ruling party members at the commissions, especially at the lower levels, also created a perception, that these bodies were not fully impartial.

So, transparency, I would say, overall, would be another area with a room for further improvement.

What steps should the government and election authorities take to address these shortcomings?

There is always an opportunity to review how appointments are made, and sometimes it is really about implementing the framework that you actually already have in place. One of the things we were looking at in these elections was the implementation of a number of electoral amendments made during this summer, whether in fact some of those new provisions were actually being fully implemented. It is a little too early for us to offer recommendations, those will come in maybe two months’ time, but often the issue is around full implementation of the framework that is actually in place.

Some opposition leaders stressed that there were no indications that elections were assessed as free, fair, or democratic in the preliminary report provided by the international observers. Some of the other leaders also recalled that the international observers did not question overall integrity even of the 2003 parliamentary vote, rigging of which then led to the Rose Revolution. How would you respond to those statements?

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ODIHR and of election observation. We are here to observe the process, to comment on how it conforms with international obligations, with national legislation. But we do not validate results. That is not our role. I know people would sometimes like us to do that, it would make their lives easier perhaps, but that is not what we are mandated to do.

All of the opposition parties that crossed the election threshold refuse to recognize the results and are boycotting to enter the parliament. This is clearly an extraordinary step for a parliamentary democracy. With the prospects for new political crisis looming large, could you give a few points of advice to the political actors, both in the ruling Georgian Dream and the opposition parties?

The only thing I would say is that this is quite an important moment. People have been to polls in large numbers, some of them have taken risks to do that. Not just Georgia but many countries are facing a number of complex issues right now, COVID pandemic, economic difficulties and so on. And I would just hope that all political leaders would reflect on the importance of those issues and consider that whatever actions they decide to take, contributes to the overall integrity of the process. That would be my advice.

Last but not least, is there any decision taken already on whether ODIHR LEOM is going to observe the runoffs scheduled for November 21?

We will not be here for the second round of elections. This is in no way related to our assessment of the political situation in Georgia. There are a large number of elections that have been going on in the past few months and still more to come before the end of the year, several in early 2021 that we need to begin preparing for already this year. It is a factor of limited resources. We were really pleased that we were able to have as comprehensive mission as we did with 27 long-term observers in the regions and 50 [international] parliamentarians here on and around Election Day.

I believe this was one of the few elections in this period where our parliamentary partners were able to deploy, so we consider that quite an important demonstration of international community’s commitment to democratic process in Georgia.

I should add, we will be here for a number of days still, into next week, following up on complaints and appeals and other elements of the post-electoral period – this will be an important time as well.