ELECTION IN GEORGIA—THE STUMBLING BLOCK FOR POLITICAL PARTIES
Tamara Mchedlishvili, Journalist, correspondent of the 24 chasa (Twenty-four Hours) daily (Tbilisi, Georgia)
The new parliament will be elected next fall, in 2003, yet today it has become clear that the elections will turn out to be one of the most important and dramatic political events in Georgia.
A new balance of forces and disintegration of the Union of Citizens, a ruling party of the recent past, ushered in a new, and decisive, stage of a bitter struggle for political leadership. The foreign policy considerations are also an important factor. Today, rivalry between the supporters of various foreign policy trends has become more urgent than ever because the country’s foreign policy will depend on the coming elections. There is another important factor: in 2005 Shevardnadze’s presidential term will expire, therefore all political forces are readying for the so-called post-Shevardnadze period.
This has been amply demonstrated by the elections of 2 June, 2002 to the bodies of local self-administration that experts and the media described as “rate-determining elections.” Political parties looked at them as the last test before the parliamentary elections. I regret to say that the elections demonstrated complete indifference with which the authorities and the political parties treated the local representative bodies.
The Georgian capital found itself in a most difficult situation: about six months now it has been living without a city duma (municipal council) while politicians locked in a deadly fight over seats totally disregarding the interests of the common people. A long chain of court hearings led to another attempt to count the votes.
A Few Things about Parties. Prehistory of Elections
Throughout the last 10 to 15 years the party system of the republic has lived through several radical changes. A multiparty system began to take shape soon after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Even before that, in 1990 elections brought to power ultra-nationalists. After the tragic events of 1991-1992 in the Georgian capital and the 1992 parliamentary elections certain politicians with a successful communist party and Komsomol past came to power.
After the presidential elections of 2000 the ruling Union of Citizens party split. After a torturous process that lasted two years the party liquidated itself. The country entered a new period of party life. Regrettably, the party infrastructure is still changing for several reasons: the republic has not acquired traditions of a multiparty system; since communist times parties are associated with definite persons; the country is living amid a constant political warfare.
The political parties have not yet resolved their ideological and organizational problems; their programs, rules and election platforms differ but little from each other. People are no longer amazed when parties change their names for narrow political considerations, revise their ideas and philosophies, enter into short-lived ad hoc alliances with parties the declared positions of which radically differ from their own.
Recently, political parties disappeared and new political parties appeared more often than before; many of them made hardly justified steps to secure their own goals. Regrettably, certain members of the political establishment are wasting their strength on petty intrigues and squabbles while political life in the republic has become criminalized to a certain extent. Corruption, embezzlement of grants and loans, and abuse of official positions caused no surprise.
Despite this, the party system in Georgia is working; new parties of the so-called middle class appeared. They are gradually moving away from the accepted style of political life. This breeds hope that little by little the parties will demonstrate more honesty toward their supporters.
The elections to the bodies of local self-administration were mainly conducted according to the majority system. Tbilisi alone voted for party lists: twenty parties ran for the city duma. There were several favorites among them, nearly all of them were opposition parties. One can say that the results came as a surprise to no one. The following parties got the largest number of votes: the Labor Party, the National Movement and the New Right. The period of preparation for the election was not free of serious violations: until the last moment nobody knew the exact number of voters in the capital, the district election commissions took too long to be formed; some of the districts had no lists of voters while on the election day voters failed to find several of the polling stations.
Until now nobody knows which of the official structures were responsible for these failures. On the eve of the elections Chairman of the Central Election Commission (CEC) Dzhumber Lominadze asked President Shevardnadze to postpone the elections. The president refused.
It should be said that under the law the elections should have taken place in the fall of 2001. In the complex political situation in the country at that time (the president disbanded the executive structures, Zurab Zhvania, the speaker and the leader of the Union of Citizens party left his post that shifted the balance of political forces) the president and the government agreed that the local elections should be postponed till better days.
On 2 June, 2002 the situation remained the same—the country was not ready to vote.
Political Scandal in the Capital
The events in Tbilisi that followed the elections of 2 June can be described as a political scandal. From the very beginning the larger part of the parties that ran for the city duma expected to win the majority so that to place the local budget under their control. Leaders of nearly all parties headed the lists in the hope of attracting the voters. The hopes proved to be vain: none of the parties won the majority.
The results took the city authorities by surprise: people preferred the opposition parties and totally ignored the political forces that openly sided with the authorities. After protracted secret consultations the winners (the Labor Party, the National Movement and the New Right mentioned above) failed to agree on the key question: who would head the city’s municipal structures. Indeed, the political significance of the city self-administration concentrated in the key posts because the Law on the Bodies of Local Administration and Self-Administration obviously infringed on the rights of local representative bodies. This is explained by the fact that the local and central administrations have not yet delimited their powers. Under the current law it is impossible to decide which responsibilities belong to local and which to central administration. The representative structures cannot initiate an impeachment of the head of the local administration while the head can suspend the decisions adopted by the representative body. For this reason the political parties were gradually losing an interest in the city duma.
Soon after the elections of 2 June all political parties announced that there had been gross violations during the elections. The scandal reached its peak when three parties (the Socialist, People’s and National-Democratic parties) went to court with a demand to annul the election results. Earlier the National Movement had obtained a court decision under which the Central Election Commission had to find those who falsified the election results and were guilty of other violations. It began recounting the votes while the capital was left without the duma. Many CEC members hoped that the court would not satisfy the claims and that the problem of falsifications and other violations would gradually fade away. Despite the Commission’s violent protests it had to abide to the court decision.
Recounting started on 12 August and is proceeding smoothly yet so far the CEC has failed to approve the new results because neither the chairman nor his deputies displayed an interest in the procedure. This boring but responsible task fell to the lot of rank-and-file employees.
The Free Elections international nongovernmental organization that plays the part of an observer directly accused the commission of deliberate sabotage of the process and addressed the Supreme Court, the parliament, and the government with a corresponding statement. The political parties remained amazingly calm for a long time yet three months later two of them (the National Movement and the National-Democratic Party) announced that the capital could no longer function without a duma. Other parties ignored the statement. The Socialist and the People’s parties want to go to court once more. Their spokesmen said that the results of elections in Tbilisi should not be revised—they should be annulled and a date of new elections fixed.
The president has not yet offered his comments while the CEC does not want to shoulder political responsibility and name the culprits. The mayor remains silent. One is tempted to think that the parties and the officials have similar interests: the politicians are no longer interested in the problem of self-administration while the mayor’s office is coping with the city problems without interference from the duma. The accusations the sides are hurling at each other are designed to impress the public.
Said Gocha Dzhodzhua, member of the People’s Party: “The elections have clearly failed. What we need is a political decision. Neither the president, nor the parliament, nor the Central Election Commission want to shoulder the burden. Everybody is biding its time. Even the judiciary do not want to interfere and therefore do not announce the elections invalid.”
Nuzgar Navadze, Chairman of the parliamentary Committee for Regional Politics and Self-Administration and member of the Socialist Party, pointed out: “Many people want the capital to be left without self-administration so that to single-handedly manage the city’s finances. The CEC has to take the interests of the authorities into account. This cannot go on for long because we want to become a truly democratic country. We should resolve these problems as promptly as possible.”
Both Gocha Dzhodzhua and Nuzgar Navadze believe that new elections are the only answer.
When Nobody Wants to Retreat
The decision of the Supreme Court took the political parties by surprise. Some of the politicians insisted that the verdict would add tension; much was said about the indignant citizens allegedly prepared to take to the streets with permanent protest rallies. In fact, the people remained indifferent and displayed no desire to demonstrate in the streets.
It should be said that the parties that went to court had enjoyed considerable influence in the previous duma. The Socialist Party that was one of them collected few votes and found itself outside the duma: having failed to gather the necessary 4 percent it could not claim any seats but was resolved to preserve its old privileges. No wonder it was its members who first voiced the idea of extending the term of the old duma.
There is an opinion among the political community that the city authorities want the same: their supporters in the newly elected duma would have been few because the relations between Mayor Vano Zodelava, on the one hand, and the National Movement and its leader Mikhail Saakashvili and the New Right, on the other, are strained.
The People’s Party sided with them. Soon after the failed elections the parliamentary Committee for Regional Politics and Self-Administration prepared and offered for a discussion amendments and additions to the Law on the Bodies of Local Administration and Self-Administration. They were rejected by the majority that detected in them a latent threat to democracy. The United Democrats violently opposed the idea and stated: “We should prevent a precedent that will be possibly used by the authorities to justify undemocratic steps.” They accused the Socialists and the People’s Party of a secret conspiracy with the city authorities. Other factions agreed with the accusations and the amendments failed.
The old city duma continued working, it passed decisions, and even asked the Ministry of Justice to register its documents. The ministry refused and this caused another scandal. Members of the old duma went to the court.
On the whole, after the 2 June elections Tbilisi found itself in a complex situation: the capital had no legally elected self-administration body.
Once More about the Laws
It has become obvious that the problem of election legislation requires attention: the parliament is openly discussing the necessary amendments to the corresponding law to be introduced in 2003 to avoid further difficulties and protect popular choice against falsifications and violations. The parliament has accepted the problem for consideration.
So far, the need for a qualitatively new type of election commissions remains a subject of political discussions. Until now the election commissions of all levels depended on political bargaining. It was only recently that the parliament rejected the idea of professional election commissions, which postponed the final solution to this important problem.
The elections revealed serious gaps in current legislation and an obvious political bias of the election commissions. One cannot expect that the commissions composed of members of various parties would strictly follow the requirements of laws: they would rather do their best to protect the party interests and enter into secret negotiations with representatives of other parties thus violating the election laws.
Here is an example. Four parties with the highest ratings (the New Right, the Democratic Alliance for Resurrection, the Socialist Party and the Industry Will Save Georgia bloc) united to appoint politically acceptable people chairmen and secretaries of election commissions. It turned out on the election day that the absolute majority of them were totally ignorant of the relevant laws and of the most basic voting rules.
It was during the same period that the CEC adopted several unprecedented decisions and set up so-called special groups that assumed the role of regional election commissions— that had nothing to do with laws. The groups were stuffed according to the secret agreement between the four parties mentioned above.
New Old Problems
Political bargaining during election campaigns is common. Since 1995 not a single election campaign in Georgia has been free from secret political agreements. Bargaining goes on at all levels up to the Central Election Commission and ends with adding or deducting votes cast for this or that party. During previous elections claims were lodged. While the Union of Citizens remained the ruling party (through it the authorities were in the majority in the CEC and could even control the judges) the opposition usually lost in courts.
Here is another tale-telling detail. Observers from the Council of Europe came to Georgia to monitor the parliamentary elections of 1999. Having familiarized himself with the situation the head of the group said to CEC Chairman Dzhumber Lominadze in so many words: “Mr. Chairman, please accept my condolences: the election law is beyond criticism while the election commissions are incompetent.” The guests compiled and translated into Georgian a methodological aid to be distributed among the local election commissions. As soon as they left the aid disappeared.
Many, though not all, politicians agree that the laws should be changed—yet nothing happens. Each party has its own standards to apply to the situation. Member of the United Democrats Party Ghighi Tsereteli, vice speaker who heads the inter-faction group working on new election legislation, has said: “We have an excellent law with few faults. It does not say that documents should be concealed or voting results falsified. Its violations do not mean that the law should be changed.” This is quite understandable: as head of the group he did a lot to improve the laws.
Dzhemal Gogoitidze, leader of the Vozrozhdenie (Resurrection) faction, firmly believes that the law should be amended as soon as possible. The wide range of opinions is typical of Georgia’s political life and nothing will change in this respect until politicians themselves decide to put an end to this.
Today, a group of Georgian academics are working on a project that can be called a revolutionary one: if adopted it will introduce an electronic system. Relevant amendments passed by the parliament will wipe away falsifications of voting results and other violations. “The new system excludes a possibility of violations during the election procedure. We shall be able to address a number of problems directly related to registering the electors. We hope that the republic will thus receive ‘pure elections,’” said Vakhtang Khmaladze, one of the project’s authors and member of the Industry Will Save Georgia faction. Very soon the project will be presented to the parliament: its working variant is ready for a general discussion. The deputies will probably check the system first by imitating elections.
Vakhtang Khmaladze hopes that if the parliament passes the amendment before the end of this year early in August 2003 the electronic voting system will be introduced across the country. “The coming parliamentary elections will be maximally protected against all violations,” says he.
Political realities offer no ground for optimism because we do not know what the parties and politicians think about the system.
At the Same Time in the Regions…
On the whole, the nation treated the elections with a great deal of skepticism. The majority of the rural people did not know whom they were expected to elect and where. There were fears that the turn up would be small, yet to the amazement of many some of the voters in the regions did turn up probably in the hope that life would improve after 2 June.
Mistrust of the rural upravas can be explained by the failure of the deputies elected in 1998 according to the party principle to improve the social and economic conditions. While being de jure independent of the local executive structures they totally depended on them de facto yet the lion’s share of blame should be laid on the political parties that gave unrealizable promises.
In 2002 the elections were based on the majority principle that somehow kindled popular interest and trust yet failed to convince people of the need to vote. In fact, a passive attitude to the voting process makes falsifications possible. The recent local elections have provided an ample proof of this.