Voters in Georgia’s presidential election had a genuine choice and candidates campaigned freely, but on an unlevel playing field, international observers say

OSCE/ODIHR have released their preliminary statement on the Georgian Presidential Election. I have copied the summary below and you can find the full report here.

The election was competitive and professionally administered. Candidates were able to campaign freely and voters had a genuine choice, although there were instances of misuse of administrative resources, and senior state officials from the ruling party were involved in the campaign. Substantial imbalance in donations and excessively high spending limits further contributed to an unlevel playing field. While public broadcasters provided all candidates a platform to present their views, the sharp polarization of the private media, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric, and lack of analytical reporting limited voters’ ability to make a fully informed choice. Legal changes that increased the representation of the ruling party at all election administration levels and the insufficient transparency in the selection of non-partisan members undermined the perception of impartiality. Nevertheless, election day generally proceeded in a professional, orderly and transparent manner, despite some procedural issues during counting, as well as many citizen observers and media acting on behalf of political parties and party supporters potentially influencing voters outside polling stations.

The legal framework provides an adequate basis for the conduct of democratic elections. The 2017 and 2018 amendments to the election code introduced a number of technical improvements. However, certain shortcomings remain and recent amendments were a missed opportunity to engage broadly and address a number of other prior ODIHR and Council of Europe recommendations or eliminate gaps and inconsistencies.

Elections were managed professionally by three levels of administration, led by the Central Election Commission (CEC) who enjoyed the confidence of most electoral stakeholders and made concerted efforts to increase the competence of lower-level commissions. In the absence of adequate regulation by the CEC, the selection of non-partisan lower-level commission members lacked consistency and transparency.

Over 3.5 million citizens were registered to vote. Authorities made commendable efforts to improve the accuracy of the voter list and election commissions gave voters ample opportunity to verify their information. Most stakeholders expressed confidence in the accuracy of the voter lists.

The candidate registration process was transparent and inclusive. In total, 25 candidates were registered, 16 from political parties and 9 independent. However, credible indications that databases of voter data were available for purchase and the absence of an effective mechanism for checking the authenticity of support signatures diminished the genuineness of the nomination process. The campaign showed that a significant number of candidates registered for the purpose of using their public funding and free airtime to support other contestants giving them an unfair advantage.

While fundamental freedoms were generally respected and contestants were able to campaign freely, ODIHR EOM observed several disruptions of campaign events and multiple instances of vandalised party offices or campaign materials. The campaign was dominated by controversial topics polarizing public opinion, negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric between the ruling and one of the opposition parties. Concerns were raised about the collection of personal data of voters and the pressure this practice imposes. Instances of the misuse of administrative resources were observed. Further the

involvement of senior state officials from the ruling party in the campaign was not always in line with the law and blurred the line between the state and the party.

Party and campaign finance legislation lacks uniformity, and recent legislative amendments did not address longstanding ODIHR and Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) recommendations. The law provides for private funding for all candidates and public funding for those nominated by parties. The lack of regulation for obtaining loans for campaign expenses and reporting on the use of these funds potentially contributes to the imbalance of the playing field. The State Audit Office verified and promptly published reports before the election. However, despite increased efforts, the lack of clear deadlines for addressing violations and the institution’s insufficient resources raised concerns about the effectiveness of campaign finance oversight. Substantial imbalance in donations and excessively high spending limits did not contribute to a level playing field.

Insufficient issue-oriented debate, shallow coverage of the campaign and the lack of analytical reporting by sharply polarized media limited the possibility for voters to make a fully informed choice. While the law provides free airtime only for certain party-nominated candidates, both public national broadcasters decided to provide all candidates the same amount of free airtime and hosted numerous debates that gave them a platform to present their views. The media regulator did not always display a transparent and impartial approach when intervening in the campaign. Media monitoring results showed clear bias in the coverage by many private media.

Overall, complaints and appeals were handled by election administration and courts in an open and transparent manner within legal deadlines. The complexity of the electoral dispute resolution system, the limited right to file complaints and appeal certain decisions, as well as the lack of sufficient legal reasoning in decisions, limited the effective resolution of disputes, at odds with international commitments and standards. Various ODIHR EOM interlocutors expressed a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the complaint adjudication system.

The Election Code provides for observation of the entire election process by citizen and international organizations, as well as representatives of election contestants, and the accreditation process was inclusive and professionally managed. During the pre-election period citizen observer groups faced intense verbal attacks on their work and representatives by high ranking members of the ruling party and senior public officials. Still, the observation efforts of established citizen observer organizations contributed to the transparency of the process.

Election day generally proceeded in a professional, orderly and transparent manner. However, the frequent presence of a large number of party supporters, often with lists of voters, noting who was coming to vote raised concerns about the ability of voters to vote free from pressure and fear of retribution. Voting was assessed positively, although those citizen observers and media who acted on behalf of political parties negatively impacted the process. The assessment of counting was less positive due to procedural problems, some cases of interference and an increase in tensions.

Macedonian name referendum has much wider implications

macedonia_greece_namedealThere’s an important referendum going on in Europe. One that has the potential to end a 27 year dispute and lead to the expansion of both NATO and the EU. And it’s all about a name.

When Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990’s the main focus was quite naturally on the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. Later the West watched and acted as Kosovo broke away from Serbia. But in the background there was a dispute over the name of the southernmost of the former Yugoslav republics. The residents of the new country refer to themselves as Macedonians and the language they speak is called Macedonian as well. But Greece sees this name as a claim on the ancient Greek province of Macedonia. The Greek objection matters, despite a ruling against them by the International Court of Justice in 2011. Because Greece can and has vetoed the application by their neighbour to the north to join the EU and NATO.

A quarter of a century ago, the UN appointed a special negotiator. Matthew Nimetz has been working on this issue ever since. Finally, on June 17th this year, there was a press conference to announce that a deal had been done. The country that has been very awkwardly known for 25 years as ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ would become the Republic of North Macedonia.

Such a change cannot happen without public approval however. The next step is a referendum to be held on September 30th.

The logjam appears to have been broken with the advent of a new Prime Minister in Skopje. Zoran Zaev and the Social Democrats took power from Nikola Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE. Gruevski’s stance was more nationalistic and his antiquization programme saw grand new buildings constructed in the classical style across Skopke and the renaming of the international airport after Alexander of Macedon – all things that would wind Greece up.

Zaev was determined to get the matter dealt with and agreed the deal which would see the name ‘The Republic of North Macedonia’ used both internally and internationally. In return, the Greeks agreed to accept that the local language will continue to be known as Macedonian and agreed to push for Macedonia to gain speedy access to both the EU and NATO.

(Incidentally, the breaking the logjam on Macedonian accession to the EU is also likely to clear the way for other countries in the Western Balkans to join)

The referendum is not a foregone conclusion, however. Zaev and the Social Democrats are campaigning heavily in favour of the deal. They also have the support of foreign leaders, with Angela Merkel due to visit soon as well as her Austrian fellow Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. A none too subtle push from the West in favour of a Yes vote. The question on the ballot paper doesn’t even refer to the name issue. It asks:

“Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

It seems that the Yes campaigning is winning at the moment with an IRI poll showing 49%-22% support for Yes (with 13% undecided and 16% not voting). Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE are opposed to the deal but their opposition lost some credibility when papers from 2008 negotiations emerged via Wikileaks showing that the then government had made a very similar proposal but been rebuffed by Greece. But referendums can be tricky beasts. A significant constituency exists in the country that believes that Macedonia could hold out for a better deal in the future. And whilst regular elections are very much controlled by the political parties, a referendum tends to bring all sorts of different campaign groups out of the woodwork. The influence that these might have could prove crucial as the campaign grinds on to September 30th.

If the referendum passes successfully, that is not the end of the matter. A two thirds vote of the Parliament in Skopje is needed to make it binding. The paving legislation was agreed by the Sobranie but this new vote will need the support of at least some opposition members and could prove to be a tougher battle than the referendum itself.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Matthew Nimetz will be retiring. His parting words asking local politicians to avoid making the best the enemy of the good may well not be heeded by the opposition immediately, but if the majority of the Macedonian public back the proposal then it may prove difficult to resist.