Head of ODIHR Election Observation Mission in Georgia, Jillian Stirk - I would remind everyone that it’s the integrity of the political process that’s at stake

Less than 2 weeks remain before the parliamentary elections in Georgia, and the level of tension is already quite high. The process is being monitored by OSCE (ODIHR) observers, who will issue a final report on the election in the weeks following the election. The head of the OSCE/ODIHR Parliamentary Election Observation Mission, Jillian Stirk, spoke to InterpressNews about the election and observation process.

- First of all, please tell us how the mission is ongoing so far - what are the main factors, both positive and negative, you already came across in the pre-election period?

- First of all, I’d just like to say what a pleasure it is to be here in Georgia. We’ve been very active over the last three weeks, meeting with a wide range of officials, with political parties, various institutions and, of course, with the civil society and the media. I would say in the positive sense there’s a high level of interest in the election campaign, people are very engaged and that’s always encouraging to see. We have an interim report coming out very shortly which will outline some of the areas that we’ve been focusing on, areas like the election administration, the implementation of the amendments to legal framework that were made last summer, maybe some concerns in the area of campaign finance, of course, taking notice of some of the allegations about violations or disputes or so on. So, some of the issues around transparency. We hear a lot about campaign finance, I would say is an issue where many people suggested there could be more transparency, we have certainly heard that. I would say that there are also some criticisms of the complaints procedure, that there are quite a number of complaints that have been submitted at different levels of different bodies, but these haven’t been fully addressed as to date. So those would be two examples.

- How will the observation be carried out on the election day - how many observers will there be, where and how will they observe the process? And are there any new methods this time?

- Let me tell you a little bit about the mission itself – we are a core team of about 13 internationals here based in Tbilisi from 10 different countries, so it’s a very diverse team, we have about 13 Georgian staff as well, and 27 long-term observers who were monitoring the situation across the country. We won’t be doing statistical analysis on the election day, because we don’t have short-term observers this time around, but we will be visiting a certain number of polling stations across the country and providing some qualitative assessments and observations of how election day is being conducted.

- What kind of difficulties have your observers encountered because of the Covid situation and how you and the Central Election Commission (CEC) will solve this problem? Do you think the pandemic will interfere in how well the observation might go?

- Well, I can’t really speak for the CEC, but I know that they have been taking some steps, concerning the conduct of the election. What I can say about the ODIHR team is that we are working very hard to implement all of the Georgian regulations and protocols within our offices here and governing our activities outside the office, because we want to contribute in a positive way to managing this pandemic. I think Covid was certainly a factor in the inability to deploy the short-term observers that had been anticipated, given all of the travel regulations and so on. We are not able to identify sufficient number of observers to do a comprehensive analysis, but that said, I believe that we will still have a very robust report. I would also like to say that the election observation is not just about the election day, it’s about monitoring and observing the whole campaign period and then, of course, it’s what happens after the election day and beyond, with the final report which will provide recommendations that Government can consider about possible ways to further improve the process. So, it’s really kind of, we like to look at it as a continuum, and I would say that our report and the work that we are doing now is as robust as it ever is.

- Can you once more remind us the main suggestions OSCE/ODIHR made for Georgian parliamentary elections and point out which ones have been taken into consideration, and which ones - haven't, and, how important are each of them concretely?

- Maybe I’d just highlight a few key areas. The previous recommendations looked at issues like the misuse of administrative resources, vote buying, recommendation for shorter deadlines for resolving electoral disputes, selection criteria for the electoral commissions at different levels, measures to increase women’s participation. Some of these recommendations were implemented, were included in the electoral changes that took place over the summer and of course, we were very pleased to see that; others were not fully reflected. I think the issue is really about implementation. So, we really have to see what the final results are at the end of the campaign, the extent to which these recommendations have been actually picked up and put into effect.

- But, how important was it to take into consideration all of these recommendations?

- Well, that’s really the decision of Georgian authorities, the ODIHR offers recommendations and then it’s up to Governments to decide to what extent those would be helpful for their electoral process.

- You already had a lot of meetings with the representatives of Government, opposition, embassies. What are the main concerns you hear about? And, how polarized do you think their views are?

- Well, I would say there is a degree of polarization, particularly we’ve noted that in the media as well. The issues that seem to come up in our conversations are allegations of intimidation, we hear about vote buying, we hear about lack of transparency from various parties. Part of our role is to look into these issues, to gather the evidence. Work that we do is very much fact-based, so our long-term observers who are out in the regions are really very important, because they provide detailed information about what they are seeing on the ground, and that helps inform our reporting and that also helps inform the recommendations that we may make.

- Before the election day, we hear about violence, such as in Marneuli and other places. What would be your assessment about it?

- We try to be very much facts-based, so we document the cases that are brought to our attention if we have sufficient evidence to do so, but it’s probably a little bit early in the campaign for us to draw any kind of definitive conclusions. That’s what we’ll see at the conclusion of the campaign.

- Since the tension is already high, what would be your advice to our society and different parties?

- If I were going to offer any advice, I think it would be to remind all of those involved that it’s really about the integrity of the process that’s at stake. We would encourage all stakeholders to conduct themselves in a way that contributes to the democratic process in a positive way.

- Overall, how would you assess the recent election system?

- I think it’s not really my role, as the head of the ODIHR mission, to comment on the system that Georgia has put in place, that’s a decision for Georgian people. Our role here is to assess the implementation of the process, to see the extent to which it’s keeping with international commitments, OSCE commitments in particular and of course the implementation of Georgian national legislation. Even compared with the previous one, we certainly don’t compare different electoral models, although we consider or take account our previous recommendations. We don’t compare one election with another.

- Could you, from your perspective, describe the importance of this election for Georgian democracy?

- I think all elections are important. That’s an opportunity for people to express their political views, express their political preferences and will. In that sense, I think what I would point to is the level of interest and engagement on the part of civil society and that’s a very positive side.

- After the election day, what will OSCE/ODIHR do in order to guarantee that if the process was not free or fair, or had any defects, Georgian people and international community will hear about it loudly?

- We will issue a preliminary statement the day after the elections, which will highlight what we have observed and just give an indication of any areas of concern. But, again, I think that the role is not for us to comment per se on the results, but really to highlight the way in which the election was conducted. So, we’ll have a preliminary statement and then a few weeks after that we provide a final report which provides of course much more in-depth assessment of how the process was carried out.

Eka Abashidze

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