Flaws in composition of electoral commissions and challenges to media environment in the first interim report of the pre-election monitoring by ISFED
On September 13, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) presented its first interim report of monitoring the 2018 presidential election of Georgia. The document covers the period from August 1 to September 8, but it also summarizes certain events that affected the electoral process beyond this period.
The first interim report of ISFED provides an account of 1 fact of physical confrontation, 1 case of harassment/intimidation on alleged political grounds, 8 cases that involve possible attempts of misuse of administrative resources and vote buying, 2 facts of interference with campaigning and 1 instance of violating the rule of printing campaign materials. Additionally, observers of the organization have found 7 various incidents in the process of composition of electoral commissions. Instances of possible mobilization of budget resources in 31 municipalities were also notable.
Appointment of temporary members of district electoral commissions (DECs) was an significant challenge. Among temporary members selected for 73 DECs, 14 were related to officials of the electoral administration or other public officials. In 7 cases, supporters or activists of the Georgian Dream were elected to commissions. Appointment of party activists as professional members of DECs jeopardizes trust towards electoral commissions and calls impartiality of the electoral administration into question, while frequent cases of appointment of relatives and ambiguous process of decision-making creates suspicions about nepotism.
The process of selection of precinct electoral commissions (PECs) was also problematic. ISFED found that in 45 electoral districts DEC members from the United National Movement demanded interviewing of candidates for PEC membership, but their demand was not met at any of the electoral districts and commission interviews were not held. Members appointed by the UNM were allowed to interview candidates independently, however majority of candidates did not show up for interview. ISFED found out that in some districts representatives of the Georgian Dream were calling candidates for PEC membership and urging them not to participate in interviews. In several districts interviews were disrupted by rest of the commission members and verbal confrontations took place.
ISFED found that selection of PEC members followed the same pattern in all 73 districts. Members appointed by the UNM and the European Georgia in DECs refused to participate in meetings of their respective commissions. As a result, only 9-10 DEC members participated in voting for selection of candidates. There was a trend of professional and Georgian Dream-appointed members of DECs mostly voting for the same candidates, while DEC members appointed by the Patriots’ Alliance of Georgia voted differently. In 25 DECs commission members made decisions based on lists prepared beforehand but they explained that they had made a draft list of candidates after shortlisting applications.
During the pre-election period ISFED identified different events that were allegedly organized for winning support of voters, which contains elements of vote buying and misuse of administrative resources. ISFED also detected possible involvement of charitable and religious organizations in campaigns, which according to the Election Code amounts to violation of the rules of canvassing.
ISFED found that since May budget amendments were made in 31 municipalities, to allow planning of social and infrastructural projects in a way that main activities of these projects often coincide with the election period. Under the law, beginning from August 29 initiation of new social and infrastructural projects and corresponding amendments to the State and local budgets is prohibited. The wave of budget amendments that took place in May-August may have to do with prohibition of budget amendments during the election period, which leads ISFED to believe that the scaling up and planning of such projects aims to win over the voters ahead of the election. Large-scale changes in local budgets give rise to doubts about misuse of administrative resources and it does not contribute to creating a level playing field ahead of the elections.
ISFED disapproves the instruction of the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) provided to television companies on imposing obligation to broadcasters for verifying credibility of public opinion polls about elections. By imposing such obligation, the GNCC calls its own function of ensuring equal media environment and access of voters to information into question. GNCC decision to impose a fine on Rustavi 2 TV for airing a paid political advertisement during non-electoral period without notifying the regulatory authority is problematic. Broadcasters are subject to such obligation during pre-election period only, 50 days prior to the Election Day. The decision may significantly affect broadcasters and they may potentially refrain from airing political/pre-election advertisement during non-electoral period.
Regarding media pluralism, recent developments involving Iberia TV are potentially threatening. Founders of the company are accusing the authorities of offering a deal to give up the Iberia TV in exchange for resolving their financial problems. ISFED also finds that the decision of the Public Broadcaster to unilaterally terminate employment contracts of some of its employees is ill-founded, since it minimizes employment security for other reporters that work for this channel, which may affect their impartiality.
ISFED proposed several recommendations for improving the electoral environment. In particular, the organization urges:
- the electoral administration – to prevent the attempts of advancing political interests at all levels of electoral commissions;
- the GNCC - to revoke its requirement to broadcasters about verifying credibility of public opinion polls and contribute to reinforcing media pluralism;
- political parties/candidates – to ensure political neutrality of members that they appoint in electoral commissions; to refrain from disrupting campaign activities of their opponents by mobilizing their supporters; to avoid actions that contain elements of vote-buying;
- charitable and religious organizations – to abide by the requirements of the Election Code and to not engage in campaigning in favor of a party or a candidate;
local self-government bodies – to prevent campaigning by civil servants during working hours; to observe political neutrality, eliminate any possible cases of misuse of budgetary and human resources; inform their respective public servants about their rights and responsibilities in the election process.
This report is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Views expressed in this publication belong solely to the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government or the NED.