Three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are seriously concerned after the government’s sudden changes to the draft for a new election law.
Now that rights advocates have had time to look closer at the changes, which were worked out behind everyone’s backs and revealed a week ago, their conclusion is that this is a disappointment to everyone who had been hoping for freer and fairer elections in Georgia.
“The new changes to the Electoral Code do not improve the electoral process at all,” Tamar Chugoshvili, chairman of Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association, said as three NGOs presented their conclusions at Radisson Hotel Tbilisi on Friday. “On the contrary, the changes make the election process unclear,” she said.
“The government won’t be able to sell the changes as a part of the agreement with the opposition” –Mamuka Katsitadze, New Rights Party
Talks to change the election law started last year to accomodate critique from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. But most opposition parties dropped out of the talks, and the government finally reached an agreement with only two opposition factions. Then the draft was sent off to the Venice Commission for review.
What took everyone by surprise was that after sending off the draft, the ruling party suddenly made several significant changes: to increase the power of the chair of the Central Election Committee, to stop marking people’s finger after voting and to stop the video surveillance in voting precincts.
Analysts from Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association (GYLA) and International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) had brought together representatives from foreign NGOs and political parties who sat listening as they were being walked through the most significant alterations president Mikheil Saakashvili’s party has made to the draft law.
The rights groups stressed the importance of having transparency in the election process and to secure a robust monitoring process. The new elements in the law threaten these concerns, as they see it. According to the new election code, cameras will no longer be installed at polling stations, the procedure with marking people’s fingers after voting will be ended and the people responsible for each polling station will no longer have permission to use video and photo surveillance in order to deter fraud, a measure which has proven effective.
“Special attention is given to political parties’s financing in the new law draft,” Nino Lomjaria, chairman of ISFED, explains. “It’s absolutely unclear why the limit of donations is doubled for election campaign fund, while today’s limit is already high compared to international standards.”
“The draft law does not suggest alternative ways to monitor the election process,” Nino Lomjaria admits. She also says that even though the finger-marking procedure was not very effective, and video recordings have not been used properly, at least it was possible to present some kind of evidence to the courts in case of violations. Now that will become impossible.
The earlier version of the draft, which two opposition groups participated in preparing, included increasing the number of members of parliament from 150 to 190, but it is unclear how the number may be lawfully increased, since it was decided in a referendum. According to the Georgian Referendum Law, the only way to change or cancel the result of a referendum is through another referendum.
“The changes make the election process unclear” — Tamar Chugoshvili, Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association
Now the draft with all its amendments is sent for review at the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body for legal and constitutional affairs. Some of the changes had been agreed between the leading National Party and several opposition parties; but some changes were not in this agreement and not even mentioned during discussions.
Rights groups told the audience Friday that the government’s most important add-on to the draft law is how the monitoring of electoral lists is to be handled, a highly contentious issue in past elections. The new codex does not specify details about the access to these lists. The Central Election Commission (CEC) will no longer be obliged to announce the exact number of the voters before election day.
“The government won’t be able to ‘sell’ all the changes made to the code as a part of an agreement made between opposition and leading party on June 27,” Mamuka Katsitadze, member of the opposition New Rights Party said during Friday’s discussion. “There are only twelve points in the agreement, but in fact there are more than twelve changes.”
He added that the New Rights Party will inform the Venice Commission about the problems with the new law when the commission visits Georgia in the end of October.
Georgia is scheduled to hold parliamentary election in 2012 and presidential election in 2013.