The composition of Georgia’s new Central Electoral Commission (CEC) has already raised doubts about the fairness of the coming elections.
In April parliament amended the Georgian election code to change the composition of the CEC and lower-level election administrations. The main point of the change was to replace the partisan principle of installing political allies and begin staffing the CEC with professionals. The new rule authorized the president to propose all seven members of CEC, including the chair, to the parliament. According to the new rule, nominees should not be affiliated with any political party and should be certified election officials selected through an open competition.
Formally, the nominations to the CEC were open. However, the selection of 12 short-listed candidates out 515 applicants was implemented under the strict supervision of Gigi Ugulava, head of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, which cast doubt on the impartiality of the selection process from the very outset.
On June 3, the Georgian parliament, where the ruling National Movement party holds a firm majority, overwhelmingly confirmed the chair and six members of the CEC nominated by Saakashvili, despite protests from the opposition factions. Legislators from the Conservative and New Rights parties even walked out during the voting. The opposition claimed that the new CEC entirely consists of supporters of the ruling party. The new CEC chairman is Gia Kavtaradze, a lawyer and former secretary of the Justice Council who was a business partner in the consulting firm Nogaideli, Damenia, Varshalomidze, & Kavtaradze. Other founders include Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, Levan Varshalomidze, chairman of the Ajara Autonomous Republic’s government, and Kakha Damenia, deputy minister for economic development.
Kavtaradze’s close links with the government raise doubts about his impartiality. The other members of CEC are not formal members of the National Movement but have been National Movement party activists. The opposition also pointed out that one of the CEC members held an official post (deputy governor of Samgerelo region in Western Georgia) prior to the nomination, which is prohibited by the electoral law. The professional qualifications of the new CEC members were also criticized. None of the CEC members has been ever involved in election-related work, which devalues the principle of a “professional CEC” trumpeted by the government.
The opposition parties, both in parliament and out, unanimously labeled the new CEC as “a one-party” body. The Conservative, New Rights, and the Republican parties representing the opposition minority in the parliament proposed an alternative rule for constituting the CEC. They proposed commissions created on a parity basis by representatives of the political parties that garnered the most votes in the March 28, 2004, parliamentary elections. Those parties were the National Movement, New Rights, and Labor. However, as anticipated, the parliamentary majority rejected the proposal.
Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party denounced the CEC nomination process as a total farce. Ironically, he said the main criteria for successful candidates apparently include a lack knowledge of electoral legislation, no experience in election-related work, and full devotion to the ruling National Movement party. “So, the government is telling us that it is going to rig elections… I have information that several people with experience gained abroad and who are considered experts in electoral legislation were rejected during the selection process,” he observed (Caucasus Press, June 1; Akhali Taoba, June 3; Resonance, June 4; Georgian Times, June 9-16).
The opposition New Rights party plans to appeal to all international organizations that monitor the fairness of elections in Georgia. “They should know what kinds of ‘democratic’ processes develop in Georgia,” declared parliament member Pikria Chikhradze.
Ironically, large-scale vote rigging during the November 2, 2003, parliamentary elections triggered the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power. The new government pledged to eliminate corruption everywhere, and the election board was rumored to be one of the most corrupt bodies. Unfortunately, the government’s election-related initiatives recall the times before the Rose Revolution when the then-ruling Citizens Union of Georgia, once home to Saakashvili and many other leaders of the National Movement, manipulated the election code to satisfy their political needs. Saakashvili’s party apparently is trying to “secure its rear” ahead of the coming elections.
Despite opposition criticism of the CEC selection process, the ruling party claims that the new, non-partisan CEC would efficiently eliminate the faking of elections once and for all. The creation of an accurate voter list is one of the first tasks the CEC faces, because incomplete voter registers were used to perpetrate electoral fraud. The regime deprived thousands of citizens of their right to vote, because the individuals’ names did not appear on the voter roll on election day. David Usupashvili of the Republican Party says that the new register of voters will be far more accurate, because the opposition parties will closely monitor this process together with the civic sector and international organizations (Resonance, June 4; Media News, June 9; Akhali Taoba, June 10).