Georgia’s presidential election: after Saakashvili

Georgia’s presidential election: after Saakashvili

On Sunday 27 October, Georgians go to the polls to elect a new president to succeed Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili came to power following the peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003, but now has to leave office as his second and final term is ending. 

Saakashvili and his United National Movement party rebuilt a failed state and managed to successfully battle everyday corruption, including cutting red tape and implementing a strict zero-tolerance policy towards low-level bribery. The party was also responsible for introducing a number of innovative transparency and open data policies.

While the government succeeded in building institutions and infrastructure, it failed to make similar progress in developing democratic standards. The party’s rule has shown increasingly autocratic tendencies, as it exerted its influence over courts, major TV stations and large parts of the private sector.

During the United National Movement’s time in power, the government also deprived people of their property without adequate compensation, and the Ministry of Interior began the unchecked monitoring of electronic communication. An archive of secretly recorded videos of public figures was created and people close to the government received land plots for token amounts of money.

Only one year ago, Georgia saw its first democratic transition of power when the Georgian Dream coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, defeated the United National Movement in parliamentary elections after opposition-leaning TV stations aired footage showing the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners.

Now Georgia faces another election, but the next president will be stripped of much of his or her power as constitutional changes come into force that strengthen the role of the prime minister and parliament.

A total of 23 candidates qualified to run for head of state, with three strong candidates: Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashivli, a professor of philosophy who recently served as minister of education; United National Movement candidate Davit Bakradze, a former speaker of parliament; and Nino Burjanadze, who has served twice as acting president and was speaker of parliament from 2001 to 2008.

Resource abuse down

Transparency International Georgia monitored the pre-election period and found that there were far fewer cases of misuse of administrative resources for electoral purposes by the new government than had been the case before previous elections, contributing to a more peaceful and competitive pre-election environment.

In one incident, however, the police searched the house of a regional staff member of the Davit Bakradze campaign at six in the morning, claiming they had learned that the United National Movement activist was storing arms and explosives. No arms, however, were found on the premises.  

There were also a number of cases where civil servants of local government bodies attended political rallies during working hours in violation of the law. During previous elections, government employees had often been pressured to attend ruling party campaign events – but not so this time. In the months following the change of power, a significant number of civil servants and officials were replaced in both central and local government bodies.

The pre-election media environment has improved significantly from previous elections: the Georgian media seems to have overcome the extreme political polarisation it showed in previous years and this time provided by and large fair and balanced coverage.

While the Georgian Public Broadcaster is stuck in a major leadership and financial crisis, private media no longer faced significant undue interference in their work. However, candidates faced few critical questions and scrutiny from reporters, who often focused on covering campaign statements.

Close watch on party funding

Our chapter in Georgia is also closely monitoring the finances of political parties, as it has in past years. Political parties and candidates have to regularly report all donations they received as well as their monthly expenditures ahead of elections – data that is then published online by the State Audit Office.

Georgian citizens are allowed to donate a maximum of 60,000 Georgian Lari (about US$36,400) to political parties, while legal entities are banned from making any contributions.

Using its scraped copy of the Georgian company registry, our chapter has been matching public datasets to show which businesses are owned or managed by donors.

The level of reported contributions remained fairly low, but Transparency International Georgia highlighted that an amount of 50,000 Georgian Lari (about US$30,000) from the director of a company that appears to be owned by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvil, through shell companies, is potentially problematic. The company has been awarded several non-competitive contracts from the Ministry of Interior this year.

Election observer

On election day, our chapter will deploy volunteer observers to more than 300 polling stations across the country to monitor the voting process.

In 2012, Transparency International Georgia was able to prove that in two separate polling stations, election protocols had been falsified to award the district’s parliamentary seat to the United National Movement. The fraud could only be detected because the Central Election Commission releases the results for every precinct and scans of the protocols from every polling station online – the protocols on the commission website showed different results than the copies that the chapter’s observers had obtained from the station after the counting had been completed. The results from the stations were annulled, and re-elections shifted the seat in parliament to the candidate of the Georgian Dream. 

Polls suggest that Margvelashivli might receive close to 50 per cent of the vote. If no candidate receives at least half of the vote, the two leading contestants will compete in a second round. Margvelashivli has repeatedly stated that he will drop out of the race if he is not winning in the first round.

His mentor, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanisvhili, has stated that a few days after the inauguration of the next president, he will resign after only one year in office and will present his successor as prime minister to the public, saying that he achieved his goal – to trigger a change of power.

For ongoing updates about the elections, follow @TIGeorgiaEng and #GVote on Twitter.

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