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RFE/RL: Ambassador Victor Ashe Recounts Experience as IRI Election Observer in Georgia

October 28, 2016

The following article by Ambassador Victor Ashe, a member of IRI's short-term election observation delegation for the October 8 Georgian parliamentary elections, appeared in RFE/RL's Georgia service. The article is reproduced below in English; the original piece in Georgian can be accessed here

Georgian Elections: An Imperfect but Crucial Step Forward on the Path to Democracy
By Ambassador Victor Ashe

The wall-to-wall coverage of the U.S. presidential elections can strain even the most seasoned political observer—so it was refreshing to have the chance to watch as another, much younger democracy head to the polls earlier this month, in my capacity as an international election observer for Georgia’s parliamentary elections.

This was my third time in Georgia as part of a delegation hosted by the International Republican Institute, working alongside parliamentarians and senior political figures from the UK, Poland, Ukraine, Sweden and Germany. I’ve served as an election observer around the world, and am always struck by how the real work of democracy takes place not as much on stage at rallies or in parades, but in the painstaking commitment to procedure and impartiality that is so crucial to conducting a legitimate election.

I arrived in Tbilisi the day of the car bombing of an opposition member of parliament—a development which many feared heralded more political violence, as tensions mounted between political parties in the run-up to Election Day. I deployed with a small team to regions in the center and south of the country for a whirlwind two days of briefings with stakeholders from across the political spectrum, and spent most of Election Day monitoring polling stations in picturesque Borjomi.

The experience showed me that Georgian democracy is healthy and dynamic, but also revealed some trends that clearly need addressing. Tactics such as the use of administrative resources for campaign activities, the misuse of NGOs for party purposes, and accusations of plans to disrupt Election Day proceedings in the pre-election period were reported across the country, and we certainly heard our share of complaints in our meetings. This created the overall impression that the parties are more concerned with internecine battles than policy—an impression that voters may find off-putting, if the relatively low turnout is any indication.

With a few exceptions—namely the unrest that broke out in Marneuli and a few other smaller incidents—the fears of violence raised by the pre-election car bombing proved largely unfounded. However, the real test will be whether the government pursues a full and transparent investigation of these incidents, as well as the allegations of misuse of administrative resources in the pre-election period.

During my time as the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, I observed the transition from communist dominated elections to a free style with the ability to speak and raise various issues without state interference. Twenty-five years since securing independence from the Soviet Union and 13 years after the Rose Revolution, Georgia remains committed to carving out her own unique position in the world and in the region—a position inextricably bound up with her firm pursuit of a democratic path. As the Georgian people return to the polls to vote in around 50 runoff contests on October 30, let us hope that the political parties will work to forge a more constructive environment that encourages the Georgian people to exercise their democratic mandate.

Victor Ashe is Chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and served as U.S. Ambassador to Poland from 2004 to 2009.