OSCE/ODIHR: Local elections in Georgia competitive and well run, but marred by allegations of pressure on voters, vote-buying and an unlevel playing field

The OSCE/ODIHR election observation mission published a statement about the October 2 local elections in Georgia. Albert Jonsson headed the mission, which sent 350 short-term and 30 long-term observers to Georgia for the country’s municipal elections.

Georgia’s local elections were competitive and technically well administered, but marred by widespread allegations of electoral violations, vote-buying, and an unlevel playing field, as well as intimidation and pressure, international observers said in a statement today.

The joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and the European Parliament (EP), found that the legal framework was conducive to holding democratic elections. However, the legislation still remains unnecessarily complex and over-regulates many aspects of the process, and despite a number of improvements, requires further refinement to address remaining shortcomings.

“These elections saw a large range of candidates campaigning freely and many diverse views. They were also run transparently and professionally,” said Albert Jónsson, who heads the ODIHR election observation mission. “However, an increasingly aggressive political discourse, and even cases of physical violence was of deep concern. Widespread and consistent claims of violations need to be thoroughly investigated by the authorities.”

Some 3.5 million citizens were registered to vote. The elections were centred on national political issues due to a protracted political crisis overshadowing local issues. While the candidate registration process was inclusive, many opposition candidates withdrew from the race, a number of them reportedly under pressure from the ruling party. Women hardly featured in the campaign and are generally underrepresented in public office, making up less than a fifth of seats both in parliament and the outgoing local councils.

“From the Congress’ perspective, the election was a missed opportunity for local democracy in Georgia. It became, in fact, a referendum on the national government and overshadowed local issues, which is regrettable,” said David Eray, Head of the Congress delegation. “In addition, the situation of women in local politics remains an issue in Georgia, despite recent legislative amendments.”

The election administration managed the process efficiently, amidst the circumstances caused by the pandemic. The sessions of the Central Election Commission were open and livestreamed for the first time, increasing the transparency of the process. Meanwhile, doubts were expressed over the impartiality of the lower-level election administration, particularly at the precinct level.

Election Day went smoothly overall, and the international observers had a positive assessment in the overwhelming majority of polling stations. However, there was concern over the widely observed practice of observer organisation representatives acting as party supporters and even interfering in the voting process, as well as the intimidating presence of party activists outside some polling stations.

The election campaign was generally calm, although cases of violence, and aggressive confrontation were observed as election day drew closer. Allegations of electoral violations by both opposition and ruling party were numerous throughout the campaign. In addition, the announcement of large-scale government projects was not in line with the spirit of the law. This, together with the involvement of senior state officials in the campaign, gave the ruling party an undue advantage.

“The pre-electoral environment, however competitive, did not provide a level playing field for the contesting parties and candidates,” said Michael Gahler, Head of the EP Delegation.

“Widespread and consistent allegations and personal testimonies should lead the competent authorities to investigate robustly cases of intimidation aiming at the withdrawal of opposition candidatures, pressure on civil servants, misuse of administrative resources, huge imbalances of financial means, in order not to further strengthen a feeling of impunity. For the post electoral period and beyond we would wish that the government and all parties follow the mature attitude Georgian citizens have shown by going to the polls in a peaceful spirit.”

Georgia’s media scene is diverse but strongly polarized, mirroring the deep divide between the ruling party and the opposition. Although legislation guarantees freedom of expression and of the media, recent cases of intimidation and threats against journalists raise concerns about their ability to work in freedom and safety.

The international election observation mission to the Georgian local elections totalled 334 observers from 37 countries, composed of 302 ODIHR experts and long- and short-term observers, 18 Congress members and staff from the Congress/Council of Europe, and 14 parliamentarians and staff from the EP.

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