IRI Eurasia Director Briefs U.S. Helsinki Commission on Preparations for Upcoming Elections in Georgia

Washington, DC – Stephen B. Nix, Director of Eurasia programs at IRI, today briefed the U.S. Helsinki Commission, chaired by Congressman Christopher H. Smith (NJ) and co-chaired by Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (MD).  Nix’s remarks focused on how far open and transparent elections have come in the Republic of Georgia and what the United States can do to promote progress in the October 2012 parliamentary elections and the presidential election scheduled for fall 2013.

In his remarks Nix noted the progress Georgia has made over the past few years in ensuring open and transparent elections.  Reforms to the Election Code, stability of the election calendar giving opposition parties time to prepare, establishment and funding of the Voters List Verification Commission, improved communications between the Central Election Commission and political parties, creation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections, and changing the method of awarding party-list seats to parties that cross the five percent threshold all show Georgia’s commitment to “securing the legitimacy of its elections and of its governance at large.”

Nix went on to caution that underlying all the progress there are several areas of concern that Georgia needs to address, the primary concern being the inequality in size of electoral constituencies.  Nix said, “In some rural areas, parliamentary mandates can be as small as 6,000 constituents, while large Tbilisi districts can reach as many as 150,000 constituents…This continued inequality of districts perpetuates a perception that not every vote is equal.”

In the past, a good Election Day has frequently been considered sufficient, but the United States and Europe would be doing Georgia a disservice to allow such a standard this time.

Also of concern is inadequate state funding of political parties; a broad and vague ban on nongovernmental organizations’ involvement in politics; an overly broad mandate of the newly established Chamber of Control of Georgia (CCG), which was established to oversee implementation of the Election Code and investigate alleged violations; the degree to which Georgian opposition parties will be able to campaign freely, particularly in the regions; and ongoing concerns that the media is not fully free to discuss the elections or issues of public concern. 

In highlighting the work of the CCG, Nix noted that more than 200 individuals were called in for questioning in March 2012 and that the Georgia Public Defender has raised concerns of possible violations of civil rights that may have taken place during these interviews.  Nix noted that while amendments approved in May 2012 have clarified the CCG’s jurisdiction, it may be too late.  “There were six months between passage and the final revision; these six months of potentially beneficial political development work cannot be restored by a simple change in language.”

In closing, Nix stated that it is “vital that the entire election campaign also meet international standards.  In the past, a good Election Day has frequently been considered sufficient, but the United States and Europe would be doing Georgia a disservice to allow such a standard this time.  With the emergence of a third major political force, these elections will no doubt be highly contested nationwide.  Governments and international organizations, both here and Europe, must be as vigilant and proactive during the pre-election period as they are on Election Day.  Every entity involved in this process bears a great responsibility.”

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