Misuse of Administrative Resources during Georgia’s 2021 Municipal Elections
Transparency International Georgia's observation of the 2021 municipal elections showed that the misuse of administrative resources during elections is still problematic for Georgia. Significant challenges included: a) Ineffective investigations into alleged cases of politically motivated pressure on employees of budgetary organizations, and dismissals and harassment of opposition party candidates; b) high degree of politicization of election commissions and courts and their inefficient and unscrupulous conduct of election disputes; c) politicization of public institutions at both central and local levels and large-scale involvement of employees of budgetary organizations in the election campaign by the ruling party; d) use of budget programs for narrow party purposes, etc.
Misuse of Enforcement Administrative Resources during Electoral Processes
- Since June 2021, there were regular reports about allegedly politically-motivated dismissals from budgetary organizations and/or pressure on the supporters of For Georgia, a political party established by the former Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Gakharia resigned in February 2021, held a presentation of the party in May, and in late June, he officially registered it as a political association. Many incumbent or newly resigned public officials and employees of budgetary organizations joined the former prime minister’s political team. In August and September, Transparency International Georgia studied several such cases and identified certain signs of harassment on political grounds in 17 of them. Some of the victims tried to defend their interests through the courts. Transparency International Georgia has been representing the interests of four persons, although most cases are still pending in courts;
- Since the beginning of September, once the deadline for registering electoral subjects had passed, many opposition political parties talked about the alleged cases of pressure exerted by the State Security Service and other agencies on those in their party lists and candidates in single-mandate districts. The main goal of such pressure, in their opinion, was to decrease competition for the ruling party. The party For Georgia was notable for a particularly high number of such reports: according to its representatives, 22 instances of this kind occurred in Aspindza, Akhalkalaki, Akhmeta, Akhaltsikhe, Marneuli, Kazbegi, Khelvachauri, Tetritskaro, Tsalenjikha, Tkibuli, Ninotsminda, Adigeni, Kaspi, and Tskaltubo. Representatives of the parties Girchi – More Freedom, the United National Movement, and Third Force – Strategy Aghmashenebeli also talked about similar cases. According to them, however, those whose registration had been withdrawn were afraid to talk about and confirm these cases. Correspondingly, it was impossible to establish their exact number. Only two candidates of the For Georgia party in Adjara and one candidate of Third Force – Strategy Aghmashenebeli in Samtredia publicly talked about the pressure they were subjected to, although, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, these persons during questioning denied that the pressure had occurred. There was a danger that party lists would be abolished due to the lack of sufficient candidates in some constituencies. The Central Election Commission had an adequate response to this threat when, on 7 September, it issued a resolution, according to which, if the number of candidates in a party list is lower than the number of members to be elected under the system of proportional representation due to candidacy withdrawals based on personal requests, the registration of a party list would not be annulled;
- In the second half of September and in October, three violent incidents took place in Dmanisi and Rustavi, injuring supporters of the opposition United National Movement party. Police soon arrested the perpetrator in the Dmanisi case and launched an investigation into the events in Rustavi;
- In August, there were reports that the government representative in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region and the regional heads of the State Security Service and the Investigation Service of the Ministry of Finance allegedly tasked local businesspeople to make financial contributions to the ruling party. When the reports were checked, it turned out that, in the period between 2 and 16 August, 87 individuals and five companies from Samtskhe-Javakheti made donations to the ruling party amounting to the total of GEL 714,000. This amount of donations made from a single geographic area over such a short period is quite unusual and might be considered to be indirect evidence backing the aforementioned reports. Furthermore, on 4 September, TV Pirveli aired a story in which some of the persons who had made the donations effectively confirmed in conversation with journalists that the meetings and circumstances mentioned above had indeed occurred. The legality of the donations was investigated within its authority by the State Audit Office (SAO), which reported that no violations were detected. In this case. Although there were obvious signs of a criminal offense, according to our information, the prosecutor's office has not launched an investigation;
- At the end of October, before the second round of elections, Lekso Rapava, a former employee of the Police and a supporter of the United National Movement, was arrested at his home in Khobi as a result of a special operation. The opposition party was convinced that this action was political persecution;
- On 1 November, the next day of the second round of elections, Iza Chirgadze, a member of the 90th polling station in the Kutaisi constituency, held a briefing with the Kutaisi mayoral candidate of the United National Movement. Chirgadze said that she was pressured by representatives of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party. Within days of the briefing, Chirgadze disappeared and cut off communication with both the media and observer organizations. Chirgadze later commented to the media and denied any pressure on her;
- Neither the Ministry of Internal Affairs nor the Prosecutor General's Office has provided full information about the measures taken by the investigative agencies, including the ongoing investigations into the alleged facts of election-related criminal offenses. The Ministry provided only brief information on the facts and investigations that took place on Election Day, although the public was unaware of the progress and results of the investigation of the facts that took place in other periods. The stakeholders involved in the elections had access to separate information at the meetings of the Interagency Commission for Free and Fair Elections with the Ministry of Justice. In particular, various government agencies provided information to the Commission on the measures taken by them in response to potential election-related irregularities. The Commission also has not submitted a report on its activities;
- In June and July, the process of selection of the chairperson and two new professional members of the Central Election Commission was underway. All stages of the selection unfolded in such a way that the ruling party was able to approve by a simple parliamentary majority – without the opposition’s support – the candidates that it considered desirable;
- One of the most important changes within the 2021 electoral reform was introducing the opportunity to file election complaints electronically. As a result of this reform, the conduct of election disputes was significantly simplified for stakeholders. However, in terms of handling election disputes as a whole, many problems were still identified during both the first and second rounds of elections. In some cases, there was an impression that election commissions and courts were not interested in establishing the truth about the case, and even in cases where there was visual evidence of a violation, they did not make appropriate decisions, which revealed a high degree of politicization of the system as a whole;
- Transparency International Georgia filed a total of 107 complaints/lawsuits in both rounds of elections since October 2. 17 of them were upheld, while 14 complaints requesting a recount of the results due to significant imbalances in the summary protocols had already been recounted by the DECs within the complaints of other organizations or by random sampling. 76 complaints were not upheld. The quality of dispute settlement during the first round of elections was worse than during the second round;
- With the legislative changes adopted in 2021, election commissions became obliged to recount the results of some polling stations. In the days following the first round of elections, district election commissions recounted the results for a total of 812 polling stations or about 22% of the total number of polling stations. As for the second round, a total of 274 precincts were recounted after 30 October, which was about 15% of the total number of precincts. Transparency International Georgia did not observe the recount process during the first round and monitored the process in 6 municipalities after the second round. The observers of the organization revealed several shortcomings or deliberate violations in the recounting process. In particular, there was a tense environment in some districts, and observers were not allowed to properly oversee the process; the ballot-counting process in several constituencies was not properly captured on video, against the legal requirement; in each commission, all precincts were counted in parallel, complicating the observation process; so-called desk voters’ lists were not opened in any of the constituencies and the number of signatures of the voters participating in the elections was not recounted. Consequently, the commissions only recounted ballot papers; some commissions recounted the votes even without opening the bundled-up packages of ballot papers;
- The Central Election Commission scheduled the first city/municipal assembly meetings for the same day – 3 December for all municipalities across the country. As a result, the above-mentioned 30-day deadline was missed in those municipalities where the second round did not take place and the final results of elections were summed up on 16 October. Therefore, this was a violation of the law. In addition, even in the municipalities where the second round was held and the election results were summarized by 13 November, it was unreasonable to wait so long and schedule the first sessions on 3 December. Such decisions also contradicted the practice established by the CEC in the previous two local elections. Under these circumstances, there was an impression that the CEC had adapted this decision to the political context in the country and allowed the ruling party-controlled old assemblies to approve next year's budgets.
Misuse of Legislative Administrative Resources during Electoral Processes
- On 28 June 2021, the Parliament of Georgia adopted the amendments to the Election Code to improve election legislation. The working process lasted several months, and the final version of the document reflected, among others, the provisions envisaged by the agreement signed by political parties on 19 April 2021. Along with positive changes, several negative provisions were included in the law, diminishing the significance of the reform and adapting it to the interests of the ruling party. Specifically, the transitional regulation envisaged for the process of selection of the Chairperson of the Central Election Commission and professional members reduced the periods between parliamentary votes, thus allowing the ruling party to approve the desired candidates without agreeing on them with the opposition. Several other transitional regulations unfairly deprived two opposition parties (the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia and the Labor Party of Georgia) of the right to appoint members to election commissions;
- Amendments were also made to the Law on Political Associations of Citizens, according to which the Labor Party of Georgia, which gave up its parliamentary mandate, has lost its right to receive public funding. It is noteworthy that the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR have assessed negatively all of the amendments listed above.
Misuse of Institutional Administrative Resources during Electoral Processes
- The employees of budgetary actively attended the campaign meetings of the ruling party. The identified cases were noteworthy due to the circumstance that employees of budgetary organizations are, in one way or another, professionally subordinated to political officials thus there was a high risk that they could be participating in the election campaign against their will. This could be a violation of the Election Code’s provision which “prohibits involving a professionally subordinated or otherwise dependent person into activities which facilitate nomination and/or election of a candidate”. Such a concentration of civil servants for the election campaign, even if it is not a direct violation of the law, at least contributes to the extreme politicization of the civil service, which is unacceptable;
- Alleged instances of organizing campaign meetings with employees of some of the budgetary organizations based on where they work were identified, which, according to the new legislative amendments, is a violation of the law. Transparency International Georgia filed complaints with relevant district election commissions concerning such 5 cases, but only one was upheld.
Misuse of Financial Administrative Resources during Electoral Processes
- During 60 days before the Election Day, the Election Code of Georgia prohibits the implementation of projects/programs which had not been envisaged by the Georgian state, autonomous republic, or municipal budgets; it also prohibits increasing social welfare payments (pension, social assistance, support and others) in this period. During the election period, none of the changes in central or local budgets have been identified that would violate this provision of the Election Code;
- During the reporting period, Transparency International Georgia identified 17 state programs/initiatives which could be considered electorally motivated public spending.
- During the election period, investigative bodies should promptly and impartially study alleged violence, intimidation, and other cases that manifest signs of crime against entities participating in elections;
- The Ministry of Internal Affairs must proactively and promptly publish information concerning the process and results of investigations into election-related cases;
- To reduce the threat of pressure being put on the candidates registered to participate in elections, it is desirable to amend the Election Code to remove the possibility to withdraw election registration based on personal application of both party list and single-mandate district candidates without the consent of a nominating party after the candidate registration deadline expires (no later than 30 days before elections);
- The process of recounting of results in district election commissions needs more regulation:
- First of all, the procedure for filing a complaint by a person interested in this process is not regulated, which should be prescribed by a by-law;
- In addition, a by-law should stipulate the obligation for a district election commissions to recount the election documents received from the polling station in full, including the desk voters’ lists, and not only the actual and invalid ballot papers;
- The decision-making procedure regarding a questionable ballot paper should be clearly and unambiguously defined to eliminate the threat of a heterogeneous approach;
- The practice of parallel recounting in precincts is to be revised, as it reduces the ability to fully observe the process;
- The Central Election Commission should convene first sessions of city/municipal assemblies as soon as possible after the election results are summed up and within the timeframe set by law, so as not to violate the law and create the impression that its decisions are politically motivated;
- A political party should not lose public funding, it is entitled to, regardless of whether it uses its parliamentary mandates. Public funding should depend on electoral support a party gets rather than its parliamentary activities;
- Political parties should refrain from involving persons employed in budgetary organizations in election campaigns against their will;
- It is necessary to expand the circle of persons who will be included in the action provided for in Article 49, Part 1 of the Election Code, thus prohibiting the involvement of a service-dependent or otherwise dependent person in activities that facilitate the nomination and/or election of a candidate. The law should cover as many public officials as possible who are employed in budgetary organizations and have certain levers to use their official position to influence their employees’ will;
- The government should refrain from initiating large-scale social and economic programs shortly before elections to avoid damaging healthy electoral competition.