Statement of NGOs in reaction to current developments in Georgia

We, the signatories named below, call upon the citizens of Georgia as well as international society to draw attention to the state of human rights, rule of law and democracy in the country, affecting pre-election environment in the run up to the 2016 parliamentary elections.  

Following the change of power through elections in 2012, a serious achievement in the history of development of contemporary Georgian state, the country has made some strides in protecting and solidifying democratic values and human rights. Among other developments, we must highlight signing of the Association Agreement, which has reiterated Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. 

Although we’ve witnessed many reforms over the last few years in Georgia, most important challenges still remain and they directly affect the pre-election environment in the country.  

1. Election Reform

NGOs, political parties and other stakeholders have long been advocating for reforms to improve the electoral system, staffing of election administrations and address the abuse of state resources. Reforming the existing mixed electoral system is especially important, in order to ensure proportionality in the translation of votes into seats, equality of suffrage, increase of women representation and equal national and local representation.
In an attempt to address the above problems, 14 political parties and 8 NGOs have reached unprecedented consensus about the electoral system reform and presented to the government their joint proposal about abolishing the majoritarian electoral system and holding the parliamentary elections under proportional electoral system. 

The ruling coalition did not support our vision about the electoral reform and later unveiled its own proposal to ensure quality of suffrage by redrawing majoritarian electoral districts and to introduce 50% threshold for majoritarian elections. These initiatives address only part of the problems in the existing electoral system and fail to eliminate all challenges. 

In addition, the ruling coalition has not yet elaborated on the issue of setting new boundaries majoritarian districts, i.e. how it plans to solve the disproportionality problem for majoritarian districts in adherence to the Constitutional Court’s decision by artificially joining or dividing districts. It is important for the government to work on these issues openly, with involvement of other stakeholders. 

With the Constitutional amendments it has initiated, the government does not plan to abolish the majoritarian component of the electoral system until after the 2016 parliamentary elections, while the opposition political parties have started collecting signatures for a petition to initiate Constitutional amendments introducing proportionate electoral system. Neither the government nor the opposition alone has sufficient votes in the parliament required to pass Constitutional amendments. Therefore, if they fail to achieve consensus, it is highly unlikely that comprehensive changes in the electoral system will be made in time for the elections in 2016 or 2020. 

We’d like to reiterate that the government’s proposal is short of drastic changes needed to solve the underlying problems in the electoral system that undermine the possibility of holding fair and competitive elections in 2016. This will impede overall democratic development of the country. 

2. Media Environment

Comprehensive changes unfolding in four major broadcasters since September 2015 greatly impact the state of media environment in the country. Temporary suspension of social-political talk shows on Imedi TV and public broadcaster, freezing of Rustavi 2 assets and bankruptcy proceedings against Maestro TV raise suspicious about editorial independence of most popular TV companies with nation-wide coverage.

The situation is further acerbated by the fact that the public broadcaster remains unfree from political influence. Since early 2013, public broadcaster’s board of trustees has been short of 2 members. Despite a number of calls by international and national organizations, the parliament of Georgia has not yet held a competition to fully staff the board and ensure its proper representativeness. In addition, elections for the public broadcaster Adjara TV and Radio board of advisors were held in violation of law. 

Despite high public interest and a number of calls made by NGOs, the authorities have failed to ensure timely and effective investigation of crimes against journalists. The Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Georgia does not keep public informed about ongoing investigations, making it impossible to evaluate the state of media in this respect. 

In addition, illegal interference of journalistic reporting is negatively affecting the degree of media independence in the country as well as safety of individual journalists and their free professional reporting.

All of the above jeopardizes media pluralism and voter awareness in the run up of by elections and next parliamentary elections. 

3. Freedom of Assembly and Expression 

Certain threats have been detected in restriction of freedom of assembly and expression by he authorities. In a number of recent peaceful protest rallies, violent clashes between protesters and counter-protesters have triggered unfounded and disproportionate interference of law enforcement authorities and institution of administrative and criminal proceedings against rally participants. Freedom of expression and assembly was restricted against rally participants on grounds of hooliganism, disobedience to legal orders of police, defacement of appearance of a self-governing entity, resulting in violation of the Constitution of Georgia and applicable international standards. Regrettably, such interpretation of law was promoted by court decisions. 

4. Judiciary

Recent developments in the judiciary system and in particular, in the High Council of Justice, as well as court proceedings in high-profile cases and statements made about high-ranking officials about these cases and addressed to the judiciary clearly suggest that judicial independence remains a serious challenge. In addition, new regulations drafted in frames of the third wave of the judiciary reform pose threats to effective and independent judiciary.
5. Law-Enforcement Authorities

Initiation of reforms in the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor’s office was the state’s attempt to make strides in independence, political neutrality, accountability and transparence of the law enforcement systems. Underlying problems in these systems that may not be resolved by reforms implemented by far, leave room for political pressure on the law enforcement authorities, the likelihood of which is further reinforced by the existing institutional practice. 

In light of the foregoing, we urge:

The Government of Georgia:
 To take meaningful steps to eliminate the above deficiencies and ensure creation of equal and fair electoral environment; 

The law enforcement and the judiciary authorities: 
 to ensure protection of freedom of assembly and expression as guaranteed by the Constitution of Georgia and take adequate and consistent further actions against perpetrators,  in order to avoid violation of the fundamental principle of equality before law and further escalation of conflicts. 

International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED)
Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA)
Transparency International – Georgia