Work to improve the Georgian election environment has ended as a draft has been sent off to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission for review and the government promises that parliament will not start its review until the results of the review are clear. It’s hard to say what the Venice Commission’s conclusions will be and how well the government has anticipated its remarks.
Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have already criticized the amendments to the draft law. In their view, this project does not include many substantive changes to improve the election environment. On the contrary, some sections make the situation even worse than it is today; or the vagueness of some regulations make it impossible to understand the different formulations.
Last year when talks began to change the election law, it was said that reforms were needed in several areas: More transparency in the election itself, the monitoring process, changes regarding the handling og voters’s lists, the election system, use of administrative resources, election financing, election administration, election disputes and sanctions for violations of the election law.
The draft sent to the Venice Commission should reflect these issues, which were part of an agreement between the ruling party and two opposition parties. This condition is fulfilled.
The changes include increasing the number of members parliament from 150 to 190. Under the new system, 83 of them will be chosen by simple majority from single-candidate districts while 107 will be chosen on the basis of a system of proportionality. If more than 100 thousand voters are registered in one electoral district, the district will be divided. This applies to the following election districts in the capital, which will accordingly have an extra representative added: Saburtalo, Isani, Samgori, Nadzaladevi and Gldani. It will also apply to the cities Rustavi, Gori, Kutaisi, Zugdidi and Batumi.
Another point in the agreement is to double the limit for how much can be donated to a campaign. The new limit is set to 60 000 GEL for gifts from individuals and 200 000 for gifts from legal persons, which in practice means private companies or organizations.
One million GEL of public funds will be allocated for supporting the election campaign of those opposition parties which pass the 5% threshold. 300 000 GEL of it may be spent on TV commercials. Each party’s representative in the different election commissions around the country will be paid 100 GEL of public money for their service.
Further, the agreement sets a limit on the use of portable ballot boxes. Not more than 3% of voters may vote by means of such boxes.
The deadline is extended for when a complaint about the election must be filed. Another change is that it will be prohibited to use offices belonging to the local authority or a representative of the president as an office for the District Election Commissions (DEC), the mid and in past elections most crucial level in a three tier hierarchy of election commissions.
These are the main changes to the law according to the agreement the ruling party struck with part of the opposition. There are also some technical issues, like increasing the number of notches on seals at the polling stations.
As reported previously by DFWatch, all those issues were reflected in a new draft. Some of the changes were added after the draft was made public, and came as a surprise. These included to stop marking voter’s fingers and no longer allow video surveillance inside polling stations to deter fraud. Further surprise changes were that there will be more secrecy around the total number of voters, and authority of the chairman of the Central Election Commission’s (CEC) will be increased.
The government hopes that “these changes will be another reform effort”. Such statements have been repeatedly made by the government. This means that the new law should improve the overall election environment and ensure public trust in the election process.
But legal experts and some NGOs consider that these amendments can’t ensure that this goal is reached; the changes cannot solve any of the issues in a way that would really improve the election.
The main argument in support of this point of view is that the project has been developed without public agreement and even the parties who shared an agreement with the ruling party, had no idea about several issues.
“The first problem is that usually such kind of problems are not decided this way. If we talk about elections and increasing public trust towards this process, then government must not lie and say that it’s working on amendments to the election law but in reality they just sit in a basement somewhere and write the whole draft. A draft which was a surprise for everyone — to the public, to that part of the opposition which didn’t agree with them, and even to those opposition parties which shared some ideas with them, se well as to the entire international community.
Secondly, the law has many technical problems. There are many problems with the procedures and the terminology in the definitions. It is simply impossible to hold good or bad elections due to this law,” Davit Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party said.
Analysts from Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA) and International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) say that the content side of the new law has special importance for how much the public will trust in the elections.
The negotiations about how to organize future elections broke down, and the final document was signed by only a few opposition parties and the ruling National Movement party. As for the other parties, which also took part in several month-long negotiations with government, the final proposals from the government were unacceptable to them.
The project for a new election system should have reflected all the issues that were considered to improve election environment and increase public trust towards this process, the NGO representatives and some experts think.
“There are many unanswered questions regarding this law. The way the draft was worked out, that process was not transparent. We think that NGOs should have taken part in this process from the beginning. Although, there are a number of changes in the new draft, but particular emphasis is placed on party funding, and we think that such changes cannot guarantee that the election process is improved,” Tamar Chugoshvili, chairman of GYLA explained.
When it comes to the specific changes, experts and opposition parties which were not the part of an agreement subject all the changes to criticism. “The government-prepared bill includes many issues, which even more will deteriorate the situation,” Nino Lomjaria, chairman of ISFED said.
However, it also must be noted that some positive changes are reflected in the project. “The reflection of the issues that were the part of an agreement is so important that we must not say no in any case,” Mamuka Katsitadze of the New Rights Party explained. New Rights party is one of the opposition parties which were the part of an agreement between opposition and government.
“None of these issues can be singled out and discussed separately. If you go one step forward and two steps backwards, the net result is one step backward. So we cannot talk about just the improvements, which are few, when in total the situation is getting worse,” Davit Usupashvili added.
GYLA, ISFED and Transparency International are giving the proposed new law similarly low grades and have published a critical report about the new draft which they hope the government will take note of. Furthermore, all these views are fully shared by a broad specter of Tbilisi’s political landscape.