On August 30, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) presented its assessment report of the pre-election environment at the start of the pre-election period for the 2018 Presidential election. In the document, ISFED provides an overview of electoral legislation, political and media pluralism situation, as well as important political and social developments prior to the election period in the country.
At this stage of the pre-election period, the organization highlights election administration composition process and challenges associated with the conduct of election campaign on social media as main issues of attention. Besides, taking into consideration the shortcomings over the last years, complaints process in the pre-election period stands as a challenge as well.
Despite general public trust towards the electoral administration and the results of recent elections, process of composition of district and precinct election commissions (PECs and DECs) fail to garner necessary confidence. In August 2018, selection of additional DEC members by the CEC already raised concerns. In addition, on August 27 a political union “United We Stand” released recordings possibly involving Krtsanisi DEC chairperson talking about recruitment of commission members in agreement with the Georgian Dream. While it is important to determine authenticity of the audio recording, contents of the recording, in itself, contain elements of crime and require adequate investigation. For many years ISFED has been pointing out the flaws in the process of composition of the electoral administration and the need to rule out possible political influences. ISFED underlines that selection of PEC members by district electoral commissions should be transparent, clear and based on unambiguous and clear criteria.
ISFED finds that in terms of election environment, a challenge to the election administration is also complaints process. Experience shows that, instances of narrow interpretation of the electoral legislation are problematic, which leads to disregard of requirements of the law and encourages future violations. Last year the CEC and district commissions failed to adequately respond to cases of illegal campaigning by civil servants using social networks. This is why, in 2018 monitoring organizations demanded that campaigning on social networks be included in the memorandum of cooperation between the CEC and monitoring organizations. At the initial stage, agreement could not be reached and signing of the MOC was postponed until the parties come to an agreement.
ISFED foresees that the upcoming Presidential election will be especially interesting due to campaign on social media and challenges associated with it. ISFED notes that number of social media pages that aim to discredit electoral subjects or political processes, promote disinformation campaigns, spread Russian propaganda messages and flare anti-Western attitudes have increased noticeably. ISFED believes, disinformation campaign on social media carried out by unidentified sources of funding puts the electoral process and equal playing field at risk. For this reason, for the 2018 parliamentary elections ISFED is implementing a pilot program of social media monitoring, with the aim of identifying, documenting and analyzing activity and disinformation on Facebook within the context of elections.
The assessment report also mentions that the Inter-Agency Commission for Free and Fair Elections fails to ensure effective prevention of violations due to non-binding nature of recommendations and lack of monitoring mechanisms. The attitude of the Commission towards monitoring organizations and violations reported by them is problematic. Instead of addressing violations during meetings, the commission chairperson and representatives of organizations with dubious reputation often attack representatives of observer organizations. Such approach casts a shadow on the work of the commission and reduces trust towards this format, as an effective mechanism for responding violations.
Media environment remains largely unchanged since the 2017 local elections. The interim measure adopted by the European Court of Human Rights with regard to the case of Rustavi 2 remains in effect. Ministry of Justice of Georgia requested abolition of the interim measure in April 2018. Keeping the interim measure in place until the ECHR delivers its final judgment is important for sustainability of democratic processes and preventing monopolization of media space.
In its report, ISFED also presented several recommendations with view of improving election environment. ISFED recommends:
• Electoral administration to ensure transparent process of PEC composition based on specific criteria and clear procedures; take strict actions in response to acts of illegal campaign by civil servants using social media; avoid the practice of narrow and verbatim interpretation of law with regards to complaints process and application of law.
• Electoral subjects should not allow mobilization and presence of their supporters at public meetings of opponents; refrain from discriminatory language or hate speech; and take every step to contribute to the safety of the electoral process.
• The State Audit Office should create effective strategy for monitoring campaign expenditures on social media and taking adequate actions in response to alleged illegal donations.
ISFED observes the pre-election environment across all electoral districts through up to 70 long-term observers since August 10. The organization will issue its first interim report of pre-election monitoring in mid-September.
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This report is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Views expressed in this publication belong solely to the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government