To rig or not to rig? That is the question in Georgia
May 10, 2008
Thousands of people gathered on May 1, in a small alley in front of the Central Election Commission headquarters. The windows of the building were shut, protected by bars, curtains closed, with only a few curious heads peeping through. As opposition leaders sought entry to the building, police officers were quickly overwhelmed. Between protesters, journalists and police officers things turn sour in minutes. MP Levan Gachechiladze, former presidential candidate and leader of the United Opposition, the 9 party opposition coalition, was pinned to the ground by police officers and beaten up. The scuffle prevented the opposition from entering the building. Gachechiladze then personally tied up two boards on one of the windows before symbolically nailing them with a hammer, which he eventually threw at the police.
Only half an hour earlier, the nine leaders of the United Opposition staged a rally in front of the Sport Palace, a few hundred meters away from the CEC office, in central Tbilisi. Speaking at the rally, MP Davit Gamkrelidze, leader of the New Rights Party said: “We want to warn Tarkhnishvili […] and Saakashvili and his administration, that we will not tolerate ballot-rigging”. The main point of the rally was to call for the resignation of the CEC’s chairman, Levan Tarkhnishvili, accused of having orders to rig the outcome of the upcoming elections. Protesters held up signs, in Georgian but also in English, which read “we demand for resignation of Levan Tarkhnishvili” or “No to fraud Tarkhnishvili”; they also shouted “Tarkhnishvili, you rat, where are you hiding?!”.
“The chairman of the CEC Levan Tarkhnishvili should resign and a consensus should be reached among the opposition parties and international observers about who will be acceptable,” said MP Kakha Kukava of the Conservative party. This shows that the United Opposition has re-launched its campaign against Tarkhnishvili (he was also accused of ballot rigging during the presidential elections back in January). These attacks are part of a broader campaign of accusations against the ruling party and the CEC on electoral fraud during the pre-election period.
The reason for this concern lays both in the situation during the last presidential elections in January but also in the multiplying accounts of fraud during the latest campaign. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) in a January 6 press release said “the campaign was overshadowed by widespread allegations of intimidation and pressure, a number of which were substantiated,” adding “some 5 per cent of voters were added to the voter list on election day.” In its full report it also noted “pervasive violations” such as the “tendency toward pro-Saakashvili bias by the CEC in resolving complaints”.
In its pre-election report on parliamentary elections, the OSCE noted “several allegations of intimidation could be substantiated”. The report gave the example of a United National Movement candidate in Tsageri who withdrew after a recording showed him “threatening public officials with dismissal if they did not secure 80 percent support for the UNM”.
However, one of the biggest issues remains that of the voter list. According to Kukava 30% of the names on the list are incorrect. The opposition has asked for more time to check the list after the CEC announced the figures of the new and rechecked voter list. It announced 3,473,190 eligible voters as of February 1, 2008 (54 774 less than for the January 5 presidential election). According to the CEC, 66,713 names were added and 17,900 dead people removed. “They added people who were born in 1995 on the lists!” said one of the leaders Zviad Ziziguri. Eka Beselia, another member of the United Opposition also showed the press a block of houses indicated on the list that did not exist as an example of the ruling party’s fraud techniques. In the OSCE’s preliminary report, international observers noted there were 692 addresses without apartment numbers in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district where more than ten voters were registered. “The total number of these voters is 12,119”, the report concludes.
On May 3, as a result of additional rechecking the CEC said 1000 underage Georgians, along with 8000 deceased and 27,000 names appearing twice were removed from the list bringing the final voter count to 3,461,851. A high figure for a country of about 4.4 million officially (although the real figure is often though to be much lower).
In its pre-election report made public on May 1, the OSCE Election Observer Mission voiced concern about the “highly polarized” political environment. The report states that “opposition politicians express deep mistrust of the state authorities, doubts about the impartiality of the election administration, and a lack of confidence in the fairness of the electoral process, regarding both the procedures and their implementation by election officials”. The report also states that in many cases the electoral commissions’ officials have “refused to hear relevant witness or view documented evidence,…” of substantial violations. In one case, the CEC lawyer also argued that “members are permitted to vote on complaints according to their ‘internal beliefs’ and are not bound by the law”.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) conducted a 2-day pre-election visit and voiced similar concern about the mistrust in the electoral process. “There is a huge lack of trust and confidence among the political players, which we find very dangerous”, said Matyas Eorsi, the head of the delegation on April 25. During a press conference in Tbilisi, he reminded that there was much more at stake in the May 21 parliamentary elections than who gets power. In early April in Bucharest, the final declaration adopted by NATO members, linked a potential Membership Action Plan for Georgia to free and fair parliamentary elections.
Leaders of the United Opposition invited all Georgians to rally outside the CEC on Election Day in order to “protect votes” and prevent rigging of the parliamentary elections. “Let’s give our future one day. On May 21, be here to vote and to protect your vote,” said Davit Gamkrelidze during the May 1 rally.
In less than two weeks, the Georgians will vote to renew their parliament. The elections promise to be much contested. However, there have not been any real debates on programs, for the upcoming elections are not so much about ideology as they are a referendum on the ruling party. The United National Party is widely perceived as corrupt and unable to deliver on its promises and recent opinion polls have shown that while the ruling party remains ahead, it should not preserve its actual large majority and may not even garner 50% of the vote.
The United Opposition has warned that if the elections were to be rigged in favor of the ruling party a mass protest is to be expected. During the rally Gamkrelidze said that “the only announcement [they] will accept from Levan Tarkhnishvili is the victory of the United Opposition”.