Joint assessment of the pre-election environment of the 2021 municipal elections in Georgia - საერთაშორისო გამჭვირვალობა - საქართველო
GEO

Joint assessment of the pre-election environment of the 2021 municipal elections in Georgia

01 October, 2021

 

  1. Introduction and a brief summary

On October 2, 2021, municipal elections will be held in Georgia. On this day, Georgian voters will elect executive (mayors) and representative (councils) bodies of local self-government in 64 municipalities, including 59 self-governing communities and 5 self-governing cities.[1] Voters will elect 64 mayors and 2,068 city council members for a four-year term.

It could be said that the pre-election environment was somewhat competitive; all parties were able to run the election campaign, but the ruling party enjoyed a greater advantage due to the mobilization of administrative and other types of resources on its side. The pre-election environment was harmed by the cases of political pressure, threats, as well as forced dismissal or coercion to resign, and ineffective investigations of such cases by relevant state agencies. In cases of pressure-threats, the involvement of the State Security Service was often evident. The line between the ruling party and the state was blurred, a number of election-motivated social and economic programs and projects were initiated, and the employees of budgetary organizations were actively involved in the campaigns of the ruling party. A significant mismatch between the financial capabilities of the parties was evident in this election as well. Unlike the previous administration, the renewed composition of the CEC and the increase in the number of members appointed by political parties have 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 address questions about credibility and impartiality.

Ineffective investigations of the attacks on members of the media have affected the pre-election processes and increased the degree of polarization in the society. The combination of the above facts and trends indicates that the ruling team did not have sufficient political will to ensure a safe and democratic electoral environment.

A special feature of the 2021 municipal elections was the political process that preceded the elections, namely: the political crisis that followed the 2020 parliamentary elections and the EU-mediated agreement reached on April 19, part of which - the ambitious electoral system – was mostly reflected in the election code. Among them, the share of proportionally elected members in the city councils has increased significantly, a number of issues related to the process of summarizing the election results have changed, but the current model of forming the election administration and some issues related to the election dispute resolution remain a challenge.

According to the April 19th agreement, the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party undertook a commitment to convene early parliamentary elections in 2022 if it would fail to garner more than 43% of the proportional ballot of the 2021 municipal elections. On July 28, the Georgian Dream annulled the April 19 agreement, citing failure to achieve its main goal of reducing polarization and radicalization and the refusal of some opposition parties, including the United National Movement, to sign the document.

  1. Pre-election campaign

The official election campaign started on August 2, 60 days before the election day, and, like the previous few elections, became increasingly intense and volatile as the election day approached.

It is noteworthy that the pre-election campaign took place against the backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic, which had a negative impact on the frequency and scale of campaign events. Part of the opposition parties did not campaign actively in the regions until recently and the process was dominated by the ruling party. It should be noted that most of the parties did not publish election programs until recently. The pre-election campaign tool place against the backdrop of sharp confrontation, polarized media environment and discrediting social media in campaigns.

Along with "traditional" pre-election irregularities, such as the use of administrative resources, as well as pressure, threats and obstruction, the pre-election period of 2021 has been marked by the high number of possible political dismissals or coercions, mostly targeting the supporters of former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia.

The pre-election campaign process was affected by the media reports about covert surveillance by the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) on 13 September. According to the media, religious organizations, journalists, representatives of non-governmental organizations, and representatives of diplomatic corps were reportedly subject to surveillance.

Violence and physical confrontation

With the election day approaching, the degree of confrontation increased, which manifested in increased facts of physical abuse and injuries. There was also a case of firearms being used against the property of an opposition candidate. Particularly disturbing was the fact that two supporters of the United National Movement were wounded with cold weapon in Dmanisi municipality a few days before the elections. A prompt and credible investigation of these cases is of great importance for increasing confidence in the electoral process and preventing similar irregularities in the future.

Cases of posting billboards containing propaganda of violence significantly damaged the pre-election environment. On July 24, 2021, a couple of weeks after the violent protest against the "March of Dignity", posters with homophobic content appeared in the streets of Tbilisi, featuring media managers and civic activists critical to the government, along with the former President Mikheil Saakashvili, against the background of blood stains and a rainbow. The ruling party denied any connection with these posters, and the Tbilisi City Hall fined two individuals on charges of distorting the city landscape. On September 17, 2021, billboards with similar content reappeared. The banners included members of the critical media as well as the opposition politicians. According to the organizations, placement of these billboards contributes to deepening of polarization in the society and encourages aggression towards the individuals depicted on them, as well as their colleagues/supporters.

As in the previous elections, there were cases of damage of campaign materials of both the opposition and the ruling party in various municipalities across the country.

Pressure/threats and dismissals on political grounds

One of the main challenges for the 2021 municipal elections has been the allegedly politically-motivated dismissals, coercion to resign and creation of hostile work environments. This trend was mostly observable in the regions of Georgia and was mainly targeting the supporters and sympathizers of the former Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia's political party. It is noteworthy that the dismissal decisions affected both political and non-political officials, which underscores that public service in Georgia is still far from political neutrality and that the appointment and dismissal of employees is a function of party loyalty rather than the professional skills. It is noteworthy that some of these dismissed individuals spoke openly about the pressure exerted on them.

During the pre-election period, there were several cases when opposition parties had problems in conducting public meetings and renting of office spaces. With the elections approaching, a nationwide trend of candidates nominated by opposition parties withdrawing their candidacies emerged. According to the opposition parties, their candidates made these decisions under pressure.

ISFED observers have learned about several instances in which employees of public and municipal services have been asked to compile and submit the so-called "lists of supporters." In the pre-election campaign the problem of politicization of public schools was also salient.

Alleged misuse of administrative resources

Use of state resources for partisan purposes in pre-election periods, is one of the main, traditional challenges of Georgian elections. State resources, given its nature, are available to the ruling party and put other election subjects in an unequal footing, thereby erasing or blurring the line between the ruling party and the state.

During the pre-election period, large-scale infrastructure and social projects were announced and/or implemented, which contains signs of influencing and manipulating the will of voters. Notable cases include: cancellation of fines imposed on individuals and legal entities (in the amount of GEL 76 million) for violation of pandemic restrictions - isolation, quarantine and face-mask; announcement of a 500-million plan for infrastructural renewal of municipalities, etc. It is also noteworthy that in June and July, before the start of the official campaign period, the budget was changed in most municipalities and the funds were channeled to social and infrastructure projects. As a rule, the announcement and implementation of such projects and events directly coincides with active phase of the election campaign, which raises doubts about their political motivations.

Another problem was the activities of political officials who ran as candidates, which rendered the division of their work functions and campaign activities difficult. It is noteworthy that they took part in events financed/planned by the municipality and in provision of social assistance or services. These activities were widely covered by the media. Merging of official and candidate roles, creates a risk that these roles are considered equivalent in the eyes of the electorate, and blurs the line between state resources and partisan interests. It also goes against of international standards for election conduct.

Participation of unauthorized persons in the pre-election campaign

One of the most common forms of use of administrative resources during working hours is the participation of unauthorized persons in campaign events of the ruling party, in particular public servants and other public sector employees, including employees of educational institutions. On some occasions, this was done in an organized manner. In some cases, gathering of participants in a uniform and organized manner contained signs of a gathering on official account, which, according to the amendments introduced to the Electoral Code as part of the electoral reform process, is a violation of the law and is prohibited even during non-working hours.

A large-scale campaign in favor of the ruling party on social media platforms during working hours by public servants and other public sector employees was also evident.

Similar to previous elections, facts of high-ranking clergy’s presence at the pre-election campaign and candidate nomination events of the ruling party are observed all over Georgia. Participation of a foreign citizen in the campaign was also observed.

Like the 2020 elections, involvement of mayor's representatives in the ruling party's pre-election campaign in administrative units of municipalities remained a problem, which was reflected in the mobilization of voters and campaigning in favor of the ruling party.

Politicization of educational institutions

Politicization of educational institutions is another important challenge of the electoral process. Considering that employees of educational institutions have some public standing in the local population, they are perceived by the ruling party as an important electoral asset. This is why they are often used for campaign purposes, including by coercion. Both incentive (promotion, payment) and punitive methods (dismissal, unjustified termination of contracts, audits and inspections, etc.) are used to coerce principals and teachers in campaigning. At the same time, it was common for representatives of the ruling party to obstruct participation of principals and teachers in campaign events of the opposition. Unfortunately, considering the problem of unemployment and the syndrome of fear in Georgia, most principals and teachers do not want to talk about this practice in public.

Reports, aired by TV Pirveli on September 11, 2021, that the SSSG was collecting and compiling information about political attitudes and activities of school principals and teachers and their relatives was alarming. According to the media report, in some cases, this let to non-renewal of their employment contracts.

Use of schools as a political instrument and the forced involvement of its employees in the election campaign violates not only the rules of the election legislation, which prohibits campaigning and misuse of administrative resources, it also violates the principle enshrined in the Law of Georgia on General Education, which bans politicization of institutions of general education.

Obstructing the observers’ work

Restriction of the rights of observers was not of large-scale, but in the pre-election period, several notable cases of pressure on observers and obstruction of their activities took place. Of particular concern in this regard were the verbal attacks on long-term representatives of ISFED by MPs from the ruling party on July 29 and August 1.

There was also a trend of observers being banned from attending candidate nomination of the ruling party and their meetings with voters. Although most of these meetings were held outdoors, where the coronavirus regulations could have been easily upheld, observers were restricted from attending the meetings without explanation. In many cases, the pre-registration was requested, but meeting-related information was not provided in advance. Observers were also not allowed to stay in the vicinity of meeting venues or to take photos from a distance.

Alleged vote-buying

Another challenge of the pre-election campaign was the alleged bribery of voters. The signs of vote-buying was mainly observed during the pre-election campaign activities held by the ruling party candidates. The alleged bribery took place in the form of transfer of tangible assets or provision of certain services and as a rule, was carried out under the guise of charitable activities.

  1. Election administration

As a result of the amendments introduced to the Election Code, composition of the commissions at all three levels has increased from 12 to 17, of which nine members will be appointed by political parties and eight members will be selected on a professional basis. This increased the party representation and made the rules for forming election commissions relatively fairer. Eight members of precinct and district commissions are appointed on a professional basis by upper-level commissions, while professional members of the Central Election Commission (CEC), including the chairperson, are elected upon recommendation of the President of Georgia, by the Parliament of Georgia. If the chairperson is elected by at least two thirds (100 votes) of the total members of the Parliament of Georgia, his/her term of office will be five years. If he/she is elected with lower quorum, his/her term of office shall be 6 months.

The President set up a commission to select the CEC chairperson and candidates. ISFED and TI, along with three other NGOs and six representatives of academic circles, were invited. In terms of setting up and running a competition commission, several problems were noteworthy, particularly: its members were not included based on the principle of parity. Namely, the Georgian Technical University was represented in the commission by three members, while other organizations and universities were represented by a single member only. In total, the number of representatives of the academia exceeded the number of members nominated by non-governmental organizations, which gave them an advantage in the decision-making process. In addition, according to the NGOs, the decisions of some members of the commission were likely made in advance. According to ISFED and TI, candidates for the position of CEC chairperson failed to meet the standard of higher confidence in the administration, which is a major challenge for this election. In addition, the parliament failed to elect the candidates by political consensus, with a high quorum. The decision was made only in the fourth ballot, by a simple majority. This rule allowed the ruling party to nominate its preferred candidates to the election administration. Unfortunately, neither the competition commission set up by the President (in case of a candidate for the chairperson), nor at the stage of the parliamentary deliberations was it made possible to select candidates who would enjoy high confidence in the public and in the political spectrum. Consequently, the main problem facing the election administration, related to the lack of public trust for the municipal elections, is still unresolved.

On August 3, 2021, the CEC started its work with all 17 members in place. In line with the recent electoral reform, the CEC has for the first time elected a member appointed by the opposition political party as deputy chairperson.

Increasing the party representation in the election administration has facilitated more meaningful discussions, and made it possible, in some cases, that some initiatives of opposition parties were accepted and supported by the CEC. The degree of transparency of election commissions has increased. Ensuring the publicity of administration meetings should also be positively assessed.

Staffing of District and Precinct Election Commissions

During the pre-election period, District Election Commissions (DECs) (219 vacant positions) and Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) (29 312 vacant positions) were staffed. It should be positively assessed that those wishing to become DEC members were interviewed and that these interviews were aired live, however, some of the candidates’ who refusal to have their interviews transmitted, created unequal conditions for other candidates. Election commission members were not elected with high quorum each time, which would have been very important for increasing trust in the administration. It is also noteworthy that many of those selected for DEC membership are employed in public sector or N(N)LEs[2] established by the state.

Several notable trends were identified in the process of selection of PEC members by the DECs, including the fact that some of the elected members are linked to the ruling party through their current or past professional activities. It also drew our attention that, in case of up to 10 districts, applications for DEC membership were filled out by applicants in a similar manner, presumably by the same person, and submitted from the same e-mail address. The fact of preliminary agreement on the list of candidates was also recorded in the same number of districts. In most cases, DEC members appointed by the “United National Movement”, “European Georgia” and “Lelo” did not participate in the vote.

During the monitoring of the first sessions of PECs, it was striking that commission members were not informed about a political party that appointed/nominated them. In some cases, people selected by DECs were surprised that they had not been nominated by a political party. Furthermore, some of the members appointed by opposition parties did not know which party appointed them; they considered themselves to be representatives of the ruling party, and only found out the name of the nominating party when filling out a corresponding list during training, which even angered some of them. The process of staffing PECs by parties was noteworthy also because not all eligible parties managed to fill all their quotas in the commissions, due to which, competitions were announced in some of the districts in order to make the number of commission members reach 17. Correspondingly, in these PECs, the number of professional members exceeds the number of members appointed by parties.

CEC Advisory Group

According to the 19 April political agreement, an advisory group was to be created under the CEC to consider election disputes and make corresponding recommendations. The group was to comprise a representative of the Public Defender and experts from local and international organisations which enjoy high level of trust. Representatives of ISFED and TI Georgia, along with other observer organisations, were invited to participate in selecting the CEC advisory group members, however, given doubts with regard to the selection group members’ impartiality and objectivity, the two organisations quickly withdrew from the selection commission.

The CEC Advisory Group composed of 12 members was established on 13 August. Due to the fact that most members and their nominating organisations did not enjoy a high level of trust or competence, it immediately became a target of criticism on the part of the reputable and impartial observer organisations. On 19 September, on the basis of the decree issued by the CEC, the Advisory Group ceased to exist. The reason was the withdrawal of seven members from the group: the remaining number of members was below the minimum established by the law.

  1. Interagency Commission

The Interagency Commission for Free and Fair Elections (ICFFE) met regularly during the pre-election period, discussing cases of alleged violations of the election legislation and hearing reports concerning the response to them on the part of the state bodies.

On 29 September, the Commission issued recommendations addressed to public servants working for the central and local government, heads of Educational Resource Centres, employees of public schools and kindergartens as well as electoral subjects participating in the elections. The Commission called on public servants to refrain from participating in campaigning during working hours and/or while performing their professional roles and to refrain from participating in meetings directed against any electoral subject so as to rule out verbal and physical confrontation on political grounds, so that the candidates would be able to communicate with voters in a free and peaceful environment. The Commission called on electoral subjects to issue a clear instruction to their supporters and, especially, public servants, to refrain from attending campaign meetings of competitor political party candidate and engaging in counter-campaigning. The Commission recommended that heads of Educational Resource Centres and employees of public schools and kindergartens would not participate in campaigning during working hours and while performing their professional duties, including by using social networks; also, to avoid politicisation of the process of education, the Commission recommended that they would refrain from involving kindergarten children in their care and their pupils in electoral processes and to separate as much as possible their own professional activities from political electoral processes.

Unlike previous elections, the Commission did not publish an interim report about its activities. The majority of the opposition parties did not attend the Commission meetings, which diminished the quality of issue consideration.

  1. State Audit Office and Campaign Finance

Since the day of scheduling the elections, a candidate to become an electoral subject or an electoral subject is under the obligation to submit a financial report to the State Audit Office every three weeks in accordance with an established procedure. Since 2 August, the electoral subjects have already submitted two three-week financial reports to the State Audit Office thus presenting information about their income and expenditure for the period between 2 August and 12 September.

Between 2 August and 12 September, “Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia” accounted for up to 70% of the total income and expenses (about GEL 11-12m each) of all electoral subjects, which indicates that there is an extremely unequal distribution of finances among the parties. About 4/5 of the total income received by electoral subjects came from private funding (donations and bank loans), while the rest was state funding.

Similar to other elections, this time, too, the alleged cases of political corruption and the lack of proper response to them were a topical issue. As it turned out, the legal entities as well as companies connected to individuals who made donations to the ruling party won public tenders amounting to approximately the total of GEL 122.2m and were awarded GEL 4.5m worth of simplified procurement contracts in 2021 (1 January – 12 September). These companies and the donors directly or indirectly connected to them made donations amounting to approximately GEL 2m to “Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia” during the same period.

Over the years, several large groups have formed among the donors to the ruling party. Almost every year, they donate hefty amounts to “Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia”. Each one of these groups is characterised by the fact that most of the people within them make donations to the ruling party on the same day or a few days apart, which raises certain suspicions about whether this collective action is organised by someone in advance and whether donations may be made through other people. According to the Georgian legislation, making a donation using a third party is prohibited. In 2021, people connected to the founder of the party “Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia”, its former chairperson and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili were among these large groups again.

There were reports in August that Samtskhe-Javakheti's Governor, regional heads of the State Security Service and the Ministry of Finance’s Investigative Service, had allegedly instructed local businessmen to donate money to the ruling party. These reports point to possible criminal violations. In August 2-16, 87 individuals and 5 legal entities from Samtskhe-Javakheti donated a total of GEL 714,000 to the ruling party. Large donations from one geographical area within such a short time is uncommon. Furthermore, in September, one of the TV stations aired a story in which a number of donors confirmed that the aforementioned meetings had taken place. According to our information, the Prosecutor's Office of Georgia has not launched an investigation into this case.

On September 29, the State Audit Office published an interim report on the financial monitoring of the elections. According to the report, the State Audit Office requested information from the Revenue Service on the income of 326 individuals and 63 legal entities during the monitoring period. Furthermore, the State Audit Office interviewed a total of 10 people. As a result of checking the declarations, the State Audit Office identified two cases when donations were made in violation of the law, through a cash donation. As a result of the Agency's work, one violation has been rectified, while the other violation is in the process of being resolved.

Moreover, the State Audit Office is currently working on three cases, namely: 1) Donations by 87 entities from Samtskhe-Javakheti. According to the State Audit Office, they verified information about the donors and found that the legal entities had sufficient income to make the donations. The State Audit Office is still working to verify the information about natural persons; 2) Inquiry is ongoing on the donations received by political union "Girchi", which held so-called donation auctions for the selection of members of election commissions; 3) Inquiry into the legality of placing banners with political content "No to Nazis, No to Evil, No to Betrayal".

  1. Using social media for electoral purposes

Social networks, especially Facebook, were widely used for electoral purposes during the 2021 local government elections by certain electoral subjects and associated actors, as well as by central and local government bodies. Anonymous Facebook pages were also created and operational.

Instances of open canvassing were rarely observed on official websites of local self-government bodies. Nevertheless, there were instances when Facebook pages of municipalities published information on the activities of mayors considered or nominated as candidates. In addition to the official pages of political parties and politicians, there were various types of anonymous/unofficial entities on Facebook, whose main goal was to discredit a particular political party, their leader and ongoing political processes. Most of the posts on these Facebook pages constituted hate speech and took the form of personal attacks. This further deepened the level of polarization and prevented a healthy environment for discussions in the run-up to the elections.

Political messages, along with Facebook pages, were also circulated in groups. Other social media platforms, such as TikTok, Instagram, and Telegram, were also widely used.

  1. Media environment

As it was the case in the previous years, the major challenge in the pre-election period was creating a safe working environment for journalists and media workers. Violence and verbal abuse against journalists became widespread and apparent after the July 5 events, when violent groups assaulted more than 50 media workers and unlawfully obstructed their professional activities, which resulted in the death of TV Pirveli cameraman Lekso Lashkarava.

Although similar incidents were not uncommon, the pressure faced by media professionals increased after the July 5 events.

It should be noted that all the organizers and perpetrators of the July 5 events have yet to face justice. With certain rare exceptions, investigations into the assault on media have not been launched.

On the one hand, the inaction of law enforcement agencies to provide a safe working environment for the press, and, on the other hand, aggressive statements and hate speech,  incite more violence against the media and have a negative impact on the media environment.

A large number of files containing personal conversations and recordings, including those related to representatives of the media, have been leaked on the internet. These files and recordings were allegedly illegally intercepted and created by the State Security Service. A number of journalists have already verified the authenticity of the conversations found in the files. It is noteworthy that some government officials have expressed their concerns over the media airing the leaked conversations, rather than over the fact that these conversations were recorded illegally.

National broadcast media has become more polarized in recent years. This issue remains a significant challenge as majority of the population relies on television as a primary source of information. The narratives of Imedi TV was aligned with the messages of the Georgian Dream. Favorable coverage of opposition electoral subjects was observed on TV Pirveli and the Mtavari Channel. It is noteworthy to observe the transformation of Rustavi 2 from the previous year. The broadcaster was more or less critical of the government last year, but it presented maximally favorable coverage of the ruling party in the pre-election period. As with the previous year, the GPB's First Channel maintained a loyal editorial policy towards the government.

Representatives of the ruling party refused to visit broadcasters with a critical editorial policy, which has made it difficult for voters to make informed choices.

Another noteworthy problem is the placement of banners depicting “bloody images” of opposition leaders and representatives of critical media. Such displays promote polarization and encourage violence against media outlets and journalists.

The purpose of CEC’s monitoring of the media raises a number of questions. In its statement the CEC said that it records instances of misinformation, discrediting, discrimination, hate speech used by specific subjects (persons, parties, organizations, etc.). Nevertheless, the CEC still attributed "disinformation" to the media. Shortly after, the CEC removed some information from the report, however there are still some risks that the findings of the CEC’s report can be used for regulating the media.

The National Communications Commission is carrying out qualitative monitoring of broadcasters this year during the pre-election period, which it is not obliged to do by the law. This may be another attempt by the Commission to interfere in media content.

An additional challenge is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has practically forced the media to work with half their usual resources.

 


[1] Elections will not be held in the five municipalities (Azhara, Kurta, Eredvi, Tighva, Akhalgori) located in the occupied territories. The bodies established as a result of the 2006 local self-government elections in these municipalities will continue to exercise their powers in these territories until the Georgian jurisdiction is restored.

[2] Non-entrepreneurial (Non-commercial) Legal Entity

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