Main Findings and Recommendations - 2021 Elections
The 2021 municipal elections took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic, which again posed a challenge to the organization of elections as well as to the rights of voters and other actors involved in the electoral process. The election was preceded by a long political crisis and extreme polarization. Based an agreement reached by the political parties on 19 April, the reservation that early parliamentary elections would be held in case the ruling party failed to receive more than 43 per cent of the popular vote nationwide, turned the self-government elections into a crucial event at the national level. The mainstream issue of the pre-election campaign centered around the discussion of personal confrontations between national political leaders instead of solving problems of local importance.
Municipal elections were more or less competitive; Election Day was largely well administered. However, the financial and administrative resources concentrated in the hands of the ruling party prevented the provision of an equal electoral environment. The electoral environment was damaged by the high number of cases of pressure, threats, dismissal or coercion on political grounds, and the inappropriate response of the state to such cases. Suspicious gatherings, voter tracking, organized transportation, alleged bribery, and other irregularities around polling stations were significant problems in both rounds and had a negative impact on trust towards the electoral process. The combination of irregularities and trends identified during the second round of elections may have affected the results in some municipalities, where the difference between the winning and losing candidates was minimal.
- Some electoral procedures have been improved in the context of pre-election electoral reform. The legislation partially reflected the recommendations of local and international organizations, although the reform process mainly served the short-term goal of overcoming the political crisis and the long-term challenges remained unresolved;
- As part of the electoral reform, rules for electing a municipal representative body improved, proportional representation increased, and the electoral threshold was reduced, which ensured a more proportionate conversion of votes into mandates. However, no other, more optimal, types of electoral system were discussed and questions remained regarding the vague rule for determining the number of members in various Sakrebulos;
- The amendments introduced a fairer representation of party-nominated members in election commissions. In practice, however, the ruling party continued to influence the selection of professional members of election commissions.
- The goal of the 19 April agreement on appointment of the CEC Chairperson and professional members with high legitimacy and based on political consensus could not be achieved;
- Unlike the previous administration, the renewed composition of the CEC and the increase in the number of members appointed by political parties led to more transparent and meaningful discussions at commission meetings. However, the process of electing the CEC chairperson and professional members and the inappropriate response of the election administration to specific violations failed to dispel questions about credibility and impartiality;
- Significant increase in the number of members of election commissions, especially during pandemic, made it more difficult to find members for lower levels of the administration and, at the same time, increased financial costs. Precinct election commissions continued to be staffed through rather a formal competition. Some of the opposition parties failed to fully utilize their quota in the precinct election commissions. The number of members in election commissions significantly exceeded the functions and needs.
- The media environment was sharply polarized. Due to the situation in the traditional media, voters were deprived of the opportunity to receive objective and balanced information, which affected their ability to make informed choices;
- The degree of polarization was lower in online media. Part of the online media adhered to the principles of editorial independence and objective coverage of the information;
- Cases of obstruction of professional activities, including physical retaliation, were particularly problematic for journalists. Those cases were fueled by aggressive and discrediting statements made publicly by political officials;
- The use of harsh sanctions against broadcasters by the Georgian National Communications Commission as well as ongoing criminal disputes against media managers and owners leaved the impression that the measures were taken against the media critical of the government and showed signs of selective justice.
- The pre-election environment was more or less competitive, albeit unequal. The ruling party enjoyed great advantages due to its access to financial, administrative and other types of resources. According to the declarations submitted to the State Audit Office before the second round, out of the five parties with the highest income, the income of the ruling party was twice the sum of the incomes of the next four parties;
- The line between the ruling party and the state was traditionally blurred. The following were still observed: use of administrative resources by the ruling party; announcement and / or implementation of large-scale election-motivated infrastructure and social projects in the pre-election period; campaigning in favor of the ruling party by public sector employees, including through social networks;
- In conditions of sharp polarization, the central issue of the pre-election environment focused on confrontation among parties rather than on offering voters solutions to political challenges in the municipalities and political programs. Compared to the first round, before the second round, the parties started to discuss the needs of the population more;
- The arrival and arrest of the third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his subsequent hunger strike exacerbated political tensions and became a major political issue ahead of the second round;
- One of the main challenges to the electoral environment was the proliferation of politically motivated dismissals and / or resignations, especially in the regions, which were mainly targeted against supporters of former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia;
- During the pre-election period, a number of facts of pressure, intimidation and threats were revealed, which resulted in the withdrawal of candidacy by representatives of opposition parties;
- Despite the ban on participating in campaigning during working hours for employees of public education institutions, as mandated by the electoral reform, the issue of politization of educational institutions and their use for electoral purposes remains a significant challenge.
- The voting process was technically well organized, however, during both rounds following significant challenges were identified: lengthy, questionable gatherings of persons near polling stations; facts of voter tracking, mobilization and alleged vote buying, which is seen as a mechanism for controlling the free will of voters;
- During the second round of elections, the facts of voting by already inked voters, alleged repeat voting and violation of inking inspection / inking procedures were particularly noticeable. Numerous violations related to voter lists and mobile ballot boxes were revealed. During the second round, a combination of irregularities inside and outside polling stations may have affected the election outcome in some municipalities where the election results were close.
- Partisan observation activities under the disguise of the non-governmental organization became an alarming and large-scale practice. Observers acting in favor of political parties often disrupted the election process, interfered in the work of the commission, obstructed impartial observers, and engaged in controlling the will of the voters.
Restriction of the right of observation
- During the pre-election period and on polling day, ISFED observers were often restricted in their right to observe, mainly through obstruction of observation and the creation of a hostile environment. The practice of superficial review of complaints of serious violations of the observer's rights was problematic both in the district election commissions and in the court. The reviewers largely ignored the information provided by the observers and relied on the arguments and / or explanations of the offending members;
- The positive aspect of the electoral reform was the introduction of the obligation to recount randomly selected polling stations, although the parallel recount of precinct data in each DEC precluded the possibility of fully monitoring the process. Yet, in most cases, the commissions did not count all the required data. When considering the invalidity of ballot papers, DECs were guided by a non-uniform standard and did not investigate the issue by listening to PEC members and / or checking video footage files;
- As a part of administrative proceedings, DECs did not apply a uniform standard for examining evidence. DECs often ignored the scope of the grievance and, on their own initiative, checked only certain data. One of the main arguments for rejecting the complaint was that the case could not affect the overall outcome of the election. Such an approach discourages the filing of complaints, as this argument may be applied to virtually all violations, leaving the violation beyond legal assessment, thus encouraging its recurrence and making it impossible to prevent;
- The court mainly followed the practice established by the election commissions and made decisions through narrow interpretation of the election legislation. Court decisions were as if copied from a template and failed to meet the minimum standard of justification;
- The CEC, unlike the practice of previous years, delayed convening the first sessions of Local Council - Sakrebulos, despite the fact that the election results were summarized in a timely manner. This enabled the councils elected in 2017 and with de-facto expired mandates to approve the 2022 budgets of the municipalities. The issue was politically charged as the opposition could have had more influence when deciding on the budgets given the change in the balance of power in some of the newly convened Sakrebulos.
For the forthcoming elections, in order to comply with democratic standards and to increase public confidence in the electoral process, ISFED considers it necessary to take into account the following recommendations:
To the Parliament of Georgia:
- Implement a deep and comprehensive electoral reform based on an analysis of reforms already implemented, international best practices and local needs. The long-term vision for improving the electoral process should be based on the consensus reached between stakeholders, including political parties, local and international organizations, and other actors involved in the electoral process;
- Review the composition of the election administration and the rules of composition at all levels. In the long run, ISFED supports the transition to a fully professional model of election administration and the introduction of mechanisms for the selection of professional members that ensure the institutional independence of the election administration;
- Reduce the number of election commission members at all levels. Determine the optimal number of commission members based on needs and functions. This should include the review of the number of permanent members of the District Election Commission;
- In order to ensure the impartiality and objectivity of the competition commission set up to select professional members of the CEC, it is important to regulate in detail the composition and activities of the commission. At the stage of the formation of the commission, preference should be given to those organizations that have long-term experience of working on election issues and credible reputation;
- Criteria for the selection of professional members of the District Election Commission should be established and should exclude the possibility of appointment of persons who were members / representatives appointed by political parties or persons associated with them in the previous elections;
- Establish reasonable deadlines for the selection of professional members of the Precinct Election Commission, which will create an opportunity to conduct a substantive rather than a formal competition;
- Establish effective mechanisms for effective enforcement of prohibition of physical obstruction of the movement of voters, gathering of people and voter tracking within 100 meters from the polling station or within the polling station on Election Day;
- Identify the body responsible for removing and dismantling campaign material located within 25 meters from the entrance of the polling station.
Introduction of new voting technologies:
- In order to simplify voting procedures and prevent irregularities, as well as to minimize the human factor in these irregularities, consideration may be given to the introduction of technology in the electoral process. Such a decision should be based on consensus and high public confidence;
- It is important for the state to take into account the international standards and principles for integration of technology in elections as well as local specifics and to develop a specific plan outlining phases of introduction of such technology in the electoral process. In addition, it is necessary to develop detailed legal framework, including for the Election Code of Georgia to regulate the basic principles and election procedures for the use of electronic technologies in the electoral process;
To the election administration:
- Change the practice of regulating pre-election campaigning carried out by or in favor of a candidate nominated during the pre-election period before his/her official registration as a candidate. The deadline for applying to the election administration for the registration of candidates as election subjects is 30 days before Election Day, while the pre-election campaign starts 60 days before the Election Day. Due to the formalistic approach of the election administration, campaigning by unauthorized persons in the period from the public announcement of candidates to their formal registration remains outside the regulation;
- Considering the increased role of social media it is important to regulate pre-election agitation on social media and establish an adequate practice;
- Reasonable criteria for recounting polling station results should be defined. Among them, the district election commissions should review and recount the documents from all precinct election commissions, where in the summary protocols the sum of the results received by the electoral subjects and the invalid ballots exceeds the total number of signatures of the voters participating in the elections;
- When recounting the data from the polling stations as required by law, instead of counting polling stations in parallel, DECs should recount data from each polling station one by one to allow observer organizations or other authorized persons to fully observe the process. In addition, all main data should be counted: voter signatures on all types of lists, valid, invalid and unused ballot papers;
- The CEC should additionally define specific criteria for determining the invalidity of ballot papers, which will ensure uniform practice in both precinct and district election commissions;
- Video recording should cover the whole process of counting the votes and summarizing the results, including drawing up a summary protocol. Video recording should be done in such a way that both sides of the ballot paper are clearly visible and the continuity of the video recording file is ensured;
- In the context of a blurred line between the state and the ruling party, the CEC should ensure that PECs are equipped with their own video cameras so that the use of cameras does not depend on the will of a particular political party;
- When considering complaints about the restriction of the rights of observers, the election administration should ensure that the administrative proceedings are conducted in full, in accordance with the law. In resolving such cases, the mere explanation of the offenders cannot serve as a ground for dismissal of the complaint;
- Non-submission of the same complaint to the Precinct Election Commission should not be considered a precondition for leaving the complaints related to the voting process and summary protocols without consideration, especially when the violation can no longer be remedied at the polling station and submission of the complaint to the Precinct Election Commission does not make sense. Such an approach is an artificial barrier to avoid responding to the violation;
- The disciplinary liability imposed on election commission members should commensurate with the severity of the violation;
- DECs should discuss violations of election law and make a decision on a complaint, regardless of whether a specific violation would impact the overall outcome. Due to the vague criterion of "impact on election results", the election administration leaves the facts of violations without legal assessment, thus excluding their prevention in the future;
- When counting the summary protocols, the DECs should take into account the complaints submitted regarding the polling station. Complaints about a specific violation should be considered together, given the issue. If the recount is conducted before the consideration of the complaint, at the initiative of the district commission, this factor should be duly reflected in decision on the complaint. If the request made in the complaint has already been fulfilled, it should be considered satisfied.
To political parties:
- Conduct an issue-oriented election campaign and fully concentrate on delivering specific election programs to voters; including on the needs of women, youth, ethnic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities, the LGBT + community and other groups;
- Develop internal party mechanisms to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in politics, including their nomination to elected office;
- In order to protect the labor rights of the employees hired to conduct the election campaign, sign individual labor contracts detailing the job description of the employees. Such agreements preclude and / or reduce attempts to force these employees into alleged criminal activity. Employees should be paid via bank transfer, which will limit undeclared expenses during the campaign;
- Refuse using the observer organizations for partisan purposes on election day and organizing pseudo-observation missions, as this undermines the idea of impartial monitoring, causes unnecessary overcrowding of polling stations, and sometimes hinders the work of precinct election commissions;
- Refuse using of discriminatory and aggressive language and hate speech during campaign, including the dissemination of misinformation and manipulated information;
- Refuse to use public education institutions and, in general, public servants for political and electoral purposes, and respect their right to freedom of expression and choice;
- Refrain from using mechanisms to control voters and their expression of free will, including the unlawful processing of voters' personal data, voter tracking, and mobilization under pressure.
To the government:
- Refrain from initiating large-scale social and infrastructure projects in the run-up to the elections, which, under a one-party executive, are electorally motivated and contain signs of misuse of administrative resources;
- Do not interfere in the activities of self-governing bodies and do not use the levers at the government’s disposal to pursue political interests, which is an obstacle to the independence and decentralization of local self-government.
To state/public agencies and local self-government bodies:
- Such agencies and bodies should act within their competence independently and impartially, in accordance with the interests of the state and not the particular party;
- Act in accordance with the basic principles of public service and refrain from engaging employees in the election campaign, which is also an illegal use of administrative resources;
- The coercion of employees of public service and non-commercial (non-entrepreneurial) legal entities to participate in party activities and to collect so-called "lists of supporters" should be eliminated. Central and local government officials must demonstrate an unequivocal and firm will not to allow their subordinates to be forcibly involved in pre-election campaigning;
- In order to protect the public sector from politicization, it is important for the government to show unequivocal political will and not to allow the dismissal of public sector employees, including those employed in non-commercial (non-entrepreneurial) legal entities of municipalities, on political grounds;
- Take effective measures to depoliticize schools and other educational institutions, increase autonomy, introduce fair and apolitical rules for appointing/dismissing principals. It is important to raise the awareness of teachers and other staff and protect them from political pressure.
To the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia:
- From the experience of previous election observation it is important to ensure calm and safe environment for representatives of the media and observer organizations around the polling station on Election Day;
- In cooperation with observer organizations ensure a sophisticated regulations for the standards of the police response;
- Respond appropriately to violations within a 100-meter radius of the polling station and effectively use the enforcement mechanisms at MIA’s disposal;
- Investigate and respond effectively to election-related facts of violence and other violations;
- Proactively publish information on the results of legal proceedings on electoral violations.
To the Office of the Prosecutor of Georgia:
- Investigate alleged criminal offenses committed during the pre-election period and on Election Day effectively and timely and, due to high public interest, provide timely information to the public about the results of the investigation.
To the Courts:
- Continue to work to improve the qualifications of judges in electoral law, so that the case adjudication process is more qualified and efficient;
- Courts should pay more attention to strictly adhering to the tight deadlines set by the Election Code, so as not to restrict the party's right to appeal;
- The quality of substantiation of court decisions should be improved; Courts should avoid formalistic and out-of-content reasoning;
- The court should realize its role in preventing electoral violations, therefore, the insignificance of the violation and its impact on election results cannot be used as an argument for dismissing the violation;
- In order to increase trust in the court, it is necessary for the court to have a fairer approach to administrative cases. In such cases the decision should not be based solely on unconditional acceptance of the testimony of the interested person – the alleged perpetrator.
To the State Audit Office of Georgia:
- It is important for the State Audit Office to establish a public electronic register of the applications / complaints submitted to the Office and the resulting decisions in order to improve the transparency of its activities.
- Given the proliferation of innovative and non-traditional models of campaign finance, effective measures are needed to respond more effectively to illegal donations and violations of party funding rules.
To the Interagency Commission for Free and Fair Elections
- In order to increase the effectiveness of the Commission's work, it is important to define the legal force of the recommendation issued by the Commission and responsibility for non-compliance with its recommendations as well as mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of recommendations and responding to identified violations.
- In order to reduce media polarization, media outlets should – to the extent possible - devote equal time to covering the campaigns of all political forces. In turn, political parties should take a constructive approach and cooperate with all media outlets to facilitate voter information and enable them to make informed choices;
- It is important to focus more on the needs of the population and the election programs presented by political parties during the pre-election period.
ISFED's monitoring mission was made possible by the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Union (EU). Monitoring of the outside perimeter of polling stations was made possible by the British embassy in Georgia. The monitoring mission was also supported by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF). The opinions expressed herein belong solely to the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the positions of donors.