Final monitoring report of 2020 parliamentary elections
The 2020 Parliamentary Elections in Georgia took place amidst the global pandemic, which posed extraordinary challenges for administering the elections, as well as for the realization of constitutional rights of voters and other key actors. Essentially, the Election Day was managed effectively, in compliance with the legal requirements. Despite the extreme surge of the Covid-19 cases, voters were provided with a safe environment to cast their votes. However, the prevalence of cases of vote-buying/bribery/intimidation, misuse of administrative resources, domination of ruling party in the election commissions, discrepancies in the summary protocols and flawed mechanisms to address them, also, an ineffective handling of complaints and appeals, significantly undermined public trust in electoral processes.
In the capacity of its election observation mission, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) identified the following key findings:
Parliamentary elections were preceded by the significant Constitutional and Election Code reforms that resulted in a more proportional electoral system, widely perceived as a step forward to a more representative and pluralistic legislature. However, changes in the electoral legislation were not accompanied by the revision of the Election Administration composition rules. Selecting and appointing professional members of the election commissions had largely been subject to political influences. Also, the appointment of the political parties’ representatives in the election administration was not based on the parity principle (one political party - one member), which resulted in an overall domination of the ruling party and raised questions regarding the impartiality and independence of the election administration.
The mass-distribution of social assistance packages, the misuse of administrative resources, and the instances of voter intimidation/pressure was a challenge to the pre-election Pandemic-driven socio-economic hardships and massive loss of jobs created the need for targeted social assistance from the government. Though, the government-issued assistance packages were distributed by the representatives of the ruling party. Consequently, for the beneficiaries, government-issued aid was conceived as the assistance provided by the ruling party, the Georgian Dream. In municipalities, local authorities representing the ruling party were reported to be direct distributors of social assistance packages to their citizens, which resulted in blurring the line between the state and the ruling party. The pre-election environment was also marked with the tendency of conducting charitable events by majoritarian MPs or candidates. Such events enjoyed intensive media coverage and signaled vote-buying.
Alongside an access to the administrative resources, the ruling party’s financial donations and its pre-election spending significantly exceeded opposition parties’ resources. Hence, in terms of financial capacity, electoral subjects competed in unequal conditions.
In the pre-election period, especially in the regions, cases of physical confrontation, intimidation, and voter pressure remained a predominant challenge. ISFED reported about the pressure on its representatives, violence against civic activists, and media representatives. Discrediting campaigns on social networks against female politicians, their intimidation and blackmail with the release of their private recordings created an utterly unfriendly environment for female candidates.
Despite the changes introduced in the electoral legislation that prohibit electoral campaigning by the employees of the legal entities under public law, public schools and their administrative units, yet again, were observed to be highly politicized.
The pre-election period was marked with extreme polarization, both in traditional and social media. Political parties and candidates mostly refused to use the media outlets that were affiliated with the opposing parties. Discussions on the programmatic issues and party platforms were rare. Voters lacked the opportunities to hear party programs and hence, make informed decisions. Polarization nurtured unfavorable conditions for new/young political parties to promote their agenda and this further deepened the division between the groups of society.
On Election Day, vote casting procedures were essentially administered efficiently, without major procedural irregularities. Nevertheless, intimidating mobilization of the party coordinators outside the polling stations was reported. Regrettably, the ruling party employed this method even in the uncontested runoff elections. This harmful practice prevails for many years already and is widely assessed as a mechanism to impose undue influence on the free will of voters. Apart from the party coordinators, the gatherings of other suspicious individuals near the polling stations created a tense atmosphere and posed an additional risk to the expression of the free will of voters.
The 2020 Parliamentary elections were also marked with the prevalence of imbalanced and modified summary protocols (having a surplus or a shortage of ballots) and with the flawed process of addressing identified shortcomings. To correct the imbalances in the summary protocols, correction protocols were issued either by the precinct or the district election commissions. It is noteworthy that more correction protocols were drawn up in the district election commissions (DECs) than in the precinct election commissions (PECs). Corrections were made not during the DEC sessions but were processed in an informal environment. Also, correction protocols were mostly issued without relevant legal grounds. In particular, numbers in the summary protocols were revised not based on a recount, but through a verbal or written explanatory note of a commission member, which is insufficient and incompliant with positive electoral standards. Drawing up correction protocols and issuing Ordinances without a recount were considered to be mechanisms used to balance out the numbers in the summary protocols.
The resolution of the election-related disputes and appeals did not uphold the high standards of credibility and trustworthiness. ISFED also observed the tendency of rejecting the complaints or denying to consider them with just formalistic reasons. Regrettably, discussion on the submitted complaints in the DECs was conducted without due consideration of circumstances and hearing on the merits. More precisely, instead of checking the relevant election-related documentation, DECs relied solely on the explanatory notes provided by PEC members. Apart from effective administration of elections, ensuring public trust in election results is one of the key responsibilities of the election administration. Trust could have been achieved through the transparent and effective resolution of each complaint and appeal. Contrary to this, the complaints handling process did not prove to be either transparent or coherent in eradicating irregularities and discrepancies identified in the summary protocols.
The hearings of the election-related appeals in the common courts were also conducted with various drawbacks. As observed in the election commissions, courts also applied a superficial and formal approach to adjudicating the complaints. Predominantly, courts fully concurred with the decisions made by the DECs, even when the decisions were not sufficiently backed up with evidence and/or the complainants had substantial arguments. Courts’ decisions were mostly identically formulated. In particular, justifications of decisions were analogous and included reference to irrelevant legal norms. City (regional) courts and the courts of appeal failed to uphold a high standard of election-related dispute resolution.