LINKS report on the 2004 Parliamentary Elections in Georgia

Posted by Julian Broxup
Caucasus Links
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tel 292399; email [email protected]

LINKS Election Report on the 28 March 2004
Parliamentary Elections (Party List) in Georgia,
issued 29 March 2004.

The new government of Georgia that came to power after the resignation of
president Shevardnadze in November 2003 inherited huge problems in all
spheres of governance. It moved swiftly and with courage and determination
to deal with some of the more serious problems, particularly corruption,
organized crime and local feudalism and with preliminary efforts to tackle
the country’s economic and social problems. Since the new government’s
accession to power was based first and foremost on the demand for free and
fair elections, expectations in this field were correspondingly high. It is
therefore unfortunate that in dealing with issues of democracy and human
rights the new government has shown a tendency to cut corners. By not
giving sufficient priority to the electoral process over other issues, the
government has initiated a worrying trend of the legitimation of significant
political changes at the ballot box only after the event.

The March 2004 parliamentary elections brought to a close the constitutional
vacuum which has persisted in Georgia since the events of November 2003.
Although there were considerable improvements in several areas compared to
the November parliamentary poll, in other areas serious problems persisted.
We reiterate that it is not possible to hold a fair and inclusive electoral
process without an accurate and comprehensive voters’ register. It is
regrettable that the high degree of political competition evident in the
November campaign has subsided to produce a significantly less pluralist
political arena. The inability of the opposition parties to join forces and
present the government with a credible challenge further contributed to a
vacuum that is dangerous in a democratic society. We also regret a
disappointing deterioration in the activity of the media over the electoral
period. We hope that the government will understand the need for an
inclusive approach to the resolution of Georgia’s many problems, and in this
regard the emergence of a younger generation of leaders amongst the
opposition forces is an encouraging development.

I Background

On 28 March a new run of the annulled 2 November 2003 parliamentary
elections was held in Georgia. It was allegations of fraud in the November
elections that triggered political turmoil in the country, eventually
leading to the resignation of President Shevardnadze. In a controversial
decision the Georgian Supreme Court ruled for only a partial annulment of
the November election results. Only the proportional representation vote
(150 of 235 mandates), whereby candidates are elected on the basis of party
lists, was annulled, while the results to the majoritarian,
‘first-past-the-post’ system were retained (75 of the remaining seats, with
10 retained by deputies representing the seceded territory of Abkhazia).
The arguments for and against this decision remained unresolved, with
numerous political forces openly declaring the majoritarian results to have
also been marred by serious fraud.

Although some saw the 28 March election as a repeat election, it in fact
represented a new electoral process in a radically changed political
environment. Following the November events, a triumvirate of opposition
leaders emerged as the country’s new leadership: Nino Burjanadze, Acting
President, Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the United National Movement, and
Zurab Zhvania, leader (with Burjanadze) of the Burjanadze-Democrats party.
In their taking control of the country the triumvirate attempted as far as
possible to remain within the constitutional order, although many questions
regarding the legitimacy of this process persist and are likely to be
revisited in the future. A pre-term presidential election was held on 4
January 2004 to elect Shevardnadze’s successor, in which Mikheil Saakashvili
was elected with an overwhelming 96.3% of the vote. Although the
International Election Observation Mission welcomed these elections as an
expression of the new leadership’s political will to hold free and fair
elections, LINKS was more critical in its assessment. Several shortcomings
of previous elections were again seen in the January poll; furthermore, a
questionable new registration process de facto cut the electorate by nearly
one third.

Following the November events and President Saakashvili’s election, a
high-profile anti-corruption campaign was initiated, targeted against many
prominent figures from the previous administration. Although this had
formed part of President Saakashvili’s election manifesto, and was welcomed
by many in principle, the manner in which this campaign was conducted
involved excessive use of force by law-enforcement agencies. There were
also significant concerns voiced in Georgian society regarding the
selectivity of this campaign and breaches of human rights.

In early February a package of far-reaching constitutional changes proposed
by the new government were approved by the reconvened 1999-2003 parliament.
These altered the system of checks and balances in Georgia in important
ways, introducing the office of Prime Minister with wide-ranging powers,
weakening the legislative branch of government vis-à-vis the executive and
making the President the Chair of the Judiciary Council with new powers to
appoint and discharge judges. There are serious concerns regarding the
haste with which these changes were adopted: presented on 3 February, they
were rushed through Parliament without serious debate and adopted on 6
February. They were signed by the president on the same day. Working at
unusual speed, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe was able to
provide an assessment of the changes by 6 February. The Commission voiced
numerous concerns regarding both the coherence and expedience of these
changes. There were also credible reports of serious pressure applied to
members of parliament to ensure support, and despite the fact that the
Georgian parliament was effectively voting to weaken its own prerogatives,
only nine MPs voted against. The lack of public debate was compounded by
the fact that several of the more respected Georgian NGOs offered no
significant criticism to these changes or the manner of their adoption,
although much stronger concerns were expressed in private.

The immediate pre-election period was dominated by confrontation between the
leadership of the Adjarian Autonomous Republic and the central government.
Simmering since the replacement of the Shevardnadze administration, with
which the Adjarian authorities had aligned themselves in the November poll,
centre-periphery relations reached crisis point in mid-March. This was
sparked by the barring of President Saakashvili from entry into Adjara,
leading to a three-day ‘blockade’ of the autonomous republic by the central
government. The dispute was resolved following intense negotiations, which
included guarantees made by the Adjarian authorities regarding the
unrestricted conduct of the elections. Both campaigning activities and
preparations for the elections in Adjara were severely disrupted as a result
of these developments.

II Political Parties and Aspects of the Election Campaign

Possibilities for a meaningfully pluralist campaign were sharply curtailed
by the prevailing political climate. Georgia’s new government disregarded
recommendations offered by the OSCE and the Council of Europe and other
international organizations, in particular recommendations that the
elections be held later rather than sooner and that the 7% threshold for
securing representation be lowered to 4-5%. In a climate where the
political arena was still extremely fluid in the aftermath of the November
events, this further narrowed the likelihood of opposition parties securing
entry into the new parliament. The campaign was consequently overshadowed
by fears that a single-bloc parliament supporting the new government would
be returned.

Parties outside the new ruling bloc continued to suffer from internal
turmoil following the change of government. Despite a number of contingency
alliances, the opposition remained fragmented. In total 5 blocs and 14
parties were registered to contest the election. Two new alliances formed
by pre-existing parties, New Rightists-Industrialists’ and ‘National
Democrats-Traditionalists’, sought to establish themselves as ‘constructive
opposition’ blocs. The Labour, Socialist and Revival parties were
consistently highly critical of the new government. The Liberty party,
headed by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, the eldest son of Georgia’s first
president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was a new addition to the political scene, but
appeared to be trading more on its associations with the Gamsakhurdia family
name than any substantive political programme. Regrettably, most of the
debate between parties during the campaigning period concerned abuses within
the electoral system, rather than substantive political issues on which the
electorate could make an informed choice.

The election campaign was sluggish, only gathering some momentum in the
final week before election day. Most opposition parties presented their
programmes with only a few days to spare, although some used the final days
of the campaign touring the country to get their message across. Some
opposition party representatives complained that the withdrawal of two of
Georgia’s most popular political talk-shows (see below, Media) had denied
them an important forum. Both talk shows had high viewership and were
considered the news flagships of both stations. Effectively the only access
to TV for opposition political parties was through paid advertising, which
in some cases was sharply limited by the paucity of campaign funds. By
contrast the new ruling bloc, National Movement-Democrats, enjoyed the
benefits of incumbency. There were credible reports of the blurring of
boundaries between local executive organs (particularly in the activity of
local governors appointed by the president) and the electoral
administration, repeating the pattern of previous elections. President
Saakashvili campaigned widely for the National Movement; on numerous
occasions he openly questioned the need for a parliamentary opposition.
This was regrettable, since although the changes to the Constitution adopted
in February permit the President to simultaneously hold the leadership of a
political party, the Unified Electoral Code (UEC) expressly prohibits state
officials from engaging in campaigning activity (Article 94).

In Adjara the local authorities did not provide appropriate conditions for
the conduct of a meaningful campaign. The entire campaigning period took
place under conditions of a state of emergency declared by the Adjarian
authorities, itself of questionable legality. Contrasting political
platforms were presented to the Adjarian electorate in the distorted form of
clashes between pro-government demonstrators and local security agencies and
the confrontation between the regional authorities and the central

III The Electoral Process

(1) Voter Registration and Voters Lists

Voter registration for 28 March continued the process initiated before the 4
January presidential poll. Through February and March the CEC continued to
work towards the refinement of voters’ register used in that election,
including the computerization of a single centralised list. Between 8 and
21 March the CEC organized a new registration period for hitherto
unregistered voters, by the end of which some 102,700 new voters had
registered. Regrettably, as a result of fears that significant numbers of
voters would still be omitted the mechanism of same-day registration was
retained. Prior to election day some 2.2 million voters had been
registered, a figure which did not dispel concerns over the failure to
include a significant number of eligible voters. Overall, the CEC
demonstrated increased control over the voter list compilation process than
its predecessor, yet the new voters’ register was again marred by
significant inaccuracies, including repeated entries, omissions and
significant discrepancies in the numbers of new voters registered held at
the CEC and in local PECs.

Several more months’ work was required for the CEC to be able to provide a
comprehensive, accurate and transparent voters’ list. Since this is a
prerequisite for any free and fair election, the Georgian government’s
decision not to postpone the election date until May, as recommended by a
number of international organizations, raised the question of their
political commitment to an inclusive electoral process.

The Adjarian authorities failed to supply the CEC with timely or
satisfactory voters’ lists; this led in one instance to the firing of a PEC
chair in Khelvachauri district by the CEC. Amid controversy over the size
of the Adjarian electorate, the CEC initiated a new registration process in
the region. The CEC also claimed to have been presented with evidence by
domestic observers that blank voters’ certificates for those voters lacking
other ID documentation were being issued illegitimately in Adjara
(Sharabidzeebi village).

(2) The CEC

The CEC, under the direction of Mr Zurab Chiaberashvili, was far better
organized and more transparent in its work than its predecessor. However
its conduct continued to attract controversy. The CEC inherited a number of
unresolved legal ambiguities from the January presidential election. A
number of provisions that were stipulated specifically for the January
election were retained without renewal or review, including the same-day
registration mechanism and the range of legitimate ID documents permitted
for voting. Many new issues were decided by means of CEC decree (including,
inter alia, simplification of the protocol forms and timing of the mobile
ballot box run), despite the fact that the CEC lacked legal authority to
make some of these changes. In part the CEC’s exceeding of its mandate was
due to parliamentary inertia. A package of changes to the electoral code
submitted to parliament at the end of February was not considered by
parliament, which failed to gather the necessary quorum. The fact that
parliament could be sufficiently mobilized to adopt the controversial
constitutional changes of 6 February, and to rubber stamp the appointment of
senior officials, but not to review changes to the electoral code
demonstrated a lack of political commitment on the part of Georgia’s new
leaders to the electoral process.

The most significant of the CEC’s decrees was to change the basis of the
calculation of the 7% threshold for party representation to turnout on
election day rather than the total number of voters registered. In
principle this decision was to be welcomed in facilitating the accession to
the incoming parliament of opposition parties. However, we remain concerned
that important decisions affecting electoral outcomes are still being
determined on an ad hoc basis by the CEC, rather than through a transparent
and accountable legal framework. Perceptions that the CEC is acting as an
instrument of policy regarding electoral provisions diminish public
confidence in the election administration and the electoral process as a

These problems apart, the CEC made effective use of international funding to
run a wide-ranging information campaign, including TV clips (subtitled in
Russian), leaflets, a new web-site and a poster campaign. It also expended
commendable efforts to ensure that electoral materials were available in
Georgia’s main minority languages, Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian.

III Election Day

Polling was conducted in a generally calm and orderly fashion. Turnout was
steady but by no means heavy. Election fatigue also appeared to be a factor
in some regions.

The efforts to improve the voters’ register notwithstanding, there were
still widespread instances of voters being turned away because of
inappropriate identity documentation or for being registered in the wrong
district. On the one hand this indicates that PEC staff were attempting as
far as possible to remain within official procedures. On the other, it
demonstrates that considerable progress still needs to be made in the voters
‘ list. We also observed cases where the number of persons on the voters’
list was double the actual number compiled by the PEC; in one PEC over one
thousand names were incorrect or double entries (Akhalkalaki). The
mechanism of on-the-day registration did not appear to be abused; numbers of
voters registered in this way were relatively modest.

Although in principle the significant presence of civil society and party
observers is to be welcomed, we are concerned that many observers
encountered were not familiar with their duties, or were not even aware of
which organization they were representing. Unfortunately we observed a
number of serious incidents of ballot stuffing, perpetrated, inter alia, by
uniformed policemen (Alkhalkalaki) and PEC staff (Adjara). We also observed
instances of PECs being situated in local government buildings in Kvemo
Kartli and Adjara, and the occasional presence of campaigning material
within precincts.

Once again the mechanism of voter marking did not prove to be effective,
with numerous instances observed of cases where there was no checking of
those entering electoral precincts, ineffective voter marking and the
permitting of voting without marking.

IV The Media

The pre-electoral period was characterised by deterioration in the working
environment of both state and independent media. There are some serious
issues of concern regarding the conduct of the new government towards media
channels it perceives as unsympathetic to its goals. In this context the
abrupt and surprising decision to take off air two of Georgia’s most popular
political talk-shows, broadcast on the Rustavi-2 and Mze channels, was a
source of serious concern. There were furthermore instances of intimidation
towards outlets associated rightly or wrongly with opposition groups. In
mid-February shots were fired into the apartment of Luba Eliashvili,
anchorwoman of the dialogi news programme on the oppositional Iberia TV
channel; on 19 February the offices of Iberia TV were raided by security
forces, as part of an anti-corruption operation directed against the channel
‘s holding company Omega Group, whose directors were included in the Revival
party list. Furthermore, on 19 February a knife was thrown into the offices
of Zviad Pochkua, editor-in-chief of the English-language daily Georgian
Times. However, neither outlet ceased operations. There were also credible
reports of journalists within the state-run Channel 1 being subjected to
unprecedented pressure in support of the new government.

The coverage of the elections broadcast on Channel 1 reflected a
pro-government bias, with the National Movement’s political advertising
enjoying pride-of-place interspersed with coverage of leading stories, all
of which were invariably connected with coverage of the activities of
leading government personalities. Coverage of opposition parties on TV
channels with national or near-national coverage was marginal. This was
compounded by the fact that the limited campaigning activities of opposition
groups provided relatively little newsworthy material. Channel 1 also
regularly broadcast free political advertising of the pro-governmental
movement Our Adjara under a rubric of ‘social advertising’.

In Adjara regional media outlets provided saturation coverage of the local
regime and the Revival party. Journalists from national media outlets
working in Adjara faced consistent harassment, and in some cases their
equipment was confiscated. There were also instances of physical assault on
journalists representing nationwide media in Adjara, for instance an attack
on a Rustavi-2 journalist was beaten up as he was leaving the region.

V Civil Society

The change of government confronted Georgian civil society groups, several
of which were closely associated with its accession to power, in a new and
difficult position. Overall their activities were significantly muted
compared to their leading role in the November parliamentary poll.
Furthermore, the split within one of the leading domestic observation
groups, the International Society for Democracy and Fair Elections (ISFED),
leading to the formation of the similarly named Fair Elections Foundation
(FEF), was a source of considerable confusion in the pre-election period.
Three major domestic observer groups, ISFED, FEF and New Generation-New
Initiative deployed over 2,000 observers apiece on election day, while a
fourth, the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) also fielded several
hundred observers. In addition, ISFED carried out a parallel vote
tabulation (PVT) based on 20% of PECs.

Regrettably, however, the proliferation of domestic observer groups has not
resulted in improved standards of observation. We are concerned that
observers from some domestic NGOs were again seen to be actively
participating in managing the electoral process.

VI Adjara

The crisis in relations between Adjara and the central government imposed
further obstacles to an already strained electoral process in Adjara. The
period since the January presidential election was marked by regular reports
of clashes between pro-government activists and local security agencies,
against a backdrop of government-led criminal investigation of business
interests based in Adjara. Following negotiations to resolve the crisis on
18 March, the Adjarian authorities offered a number of guarantees of freedom
of association and movement and the uninhibited right of opposition groups
to meetings in public spaces. These appeared to be only partially
implemented, however, with opposition groups continuing to complain of
barred access to public buildings in the final week of the campaign.
Controversy also continued to surround the size of the Adjarian electorate.
While the Adjarian electoral administration claimed a figure in the region
of 276,000 voters, opposition groups cited figures closer to 200,000. In
the event, some 85,000 voters were registered prior to election day in
Adjara. Although Adjara TV began to advertise the need for voters to
register as of 17 March, raised tensions and a charged political atmosphere
throughout the Autonomous Republic may have discouraged voters from doing

Polling in Adjara was generally peaceful but marked by a tense and
intimidatory atmosphere; we did not observe a heavy turnout. The working
environment in some PECs was highly strained, with serious confrontations
between PEC staff members; in other PECs opposition representatives and
domestic observers were passive. A large number of PECs were characterized
by the presence of unauthorized individuals, who at times attempted to
direct the electoral process. In some instances we both witnessed and
received reports of PEC members who were intimidated by local security
forces. Considerable confusion was evident both among the electorate as to
which identity documents could be used to vote, and in the list of
pre-registered voters. In some instances (e.g. Khelvachauri district) this
resulted in dozens of voters being turned away. There were credible reports
that local administrative bodies had not supplied voters without identity
documents with the appropriate certificate, or were in fact demanding
payment for its issue.

We witnessed the extensive use of so-called ‘carousel’ voting, particularly
in Kobuleti district. During the count we observed evidence of blatant
ballot stuffing by PEC staff. Furthermore, envelopes were not counted
lessening control of further manipulation during the counting process, and
we also saw ballot papers being discarded on the floor. Unfortunately,
party and NGO observers remained passive in the face of these flagrant

VII The Role of the International Community

The role of the international community vis-à-vis the electoral process in
Georgia has long ceased to be only one of observation. International
governmental organisations, non-governmental organizations and individual
governments are involved deeply in all stages of the election process. What
started off as a modest process of support for Georgia’s fledging democracy
has turned into an expensive operation involving thousands of people. This
has tended to distort the role of the international community as an
objective detached observer of the Georgian electoral process. There is
increasing questioning in some Georgian political circles regarding the role
of international community vis-à-vis the electoral process. This issue needs
to be addressed through greater transparency and accountability since the
international community still has an important role to play in promoting
free and fair elections Georgia.

In the run up to the 28 March elections the international community could
have done more to persuade the Georgian government that elections should
only be held when a proper electoral register had been compiled and to
ensure that conditions were provided for a more level playing field for
meaningful choice. Given the seismic changes in the Georgian political
system after November 2003, a full reappraisal of strategies and tools was
required to ensure that the electoral process, including the election
mechanism, the political parties, and both domestic and international
observers, provided for a system of checks and balances guaranteeing voter
confidence in the process.

VIII National Minorities

Some limited gains were achieved in the enduring problem of raising the
quality of national minority participation in Georgian elections. For the
first time in recent elections the CEC provided ballot papers and voters’
lists in minority languages, as well as other electoral materials. This
represents a positive step in making the electoral process accessible to
non-Georgian speaking populations. However, it remains a source of
considerable concern that problems in the Georgian electoral process
continue to be particularly prominent in areas of compact minority
settlement. Furthermore, the underlying problem of raising national
minority participation in the Georgian body politic remains outstanding.
According to 2002 census data national minorities account for some 17% of
the population in Georgia. However, representatives of national minorities
accounted for less than 3% of the party list candidates fielded in this
election, with the result that the incoming parliament will consequently be
the least representative parliament ever so far as national minorities are

IX Conclusion

Georgia now has a new political and constitutional order, which enjoys
legitimacy among a majority of the Georgian people. However, given the
shortcomings persisting in its conduct the 28 March poll cannot be
considered to put to rest the many criticisms that have dogged the Georgian
electoral process over recent years. Given this the government must remain
open to constructive relations with opposition forces, even those outside
parliament. The resolution of Georgia’s many problems will be difficult and
will require a significant degree of agreement among the country’s disparate
political forces . All political groups in Georgia must now work within the
new order to hasten the process of democratic state-building in Georgia.
The first priority of this process must be the elimination once and for all
of continuing doubts regarding the Georgian electoral process.

for further information please contact:

in London Niall Blackwell on +44 2077352080 or [email protected]
in Tbilisi Julian Broxup on +995 32 292399 or [email protected]