It is the natural desire of any government to be better than its predecessor and to prove to everyone – both the electorate and the international community – that it runs processes way better than the former government did. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the leaders of the ruling political team have publicly declared that the conduct of the 2013 presidential elections, slated for 27 October, will be exemplary in this regard. Naturally, until we are in the formal pre-election process it is premature to judge whether this will prove to be the reality or just the generous dream of the ruling team. However, based on the monitoring conducted by election observer organizations and on the complaints from opposition parties, one can already outline certain tendencies.
One of chief complaints the main opposition political party, the United National Movement (UNM), has voiced concerns politically motivated arrests and the application of pretrial detention to its Secretary General, Vano Merabishvili. Finding a comparable situation in previous elections is difficult; the precedent of arresting political leaders and instituting criminal proceedings against them for earlier charges during the election process has never been set before.The problem of a violent politicized environment existed during the 2012 parliamentary elections, just as it does now in the run up to the 2013 presidential elections. The two situations differed, however, by the forms of legal response to the violence. While the incidents of violence in the villages of Karaleti and Mereti during the 2012 parliamentary elections ended in the administrative imprisonment of offenders, the violent incidents that recently occurred during party events organized by the UNM as part of their presidential election campaign in Zugdidi, Batumi and Tbilisi were only treated with 100 lari administrative fines. Clearly, the application of administrative imprisonment for a violent action raises legitimate questions about the adequacy of that punishment, but the application of a mere 100 lari fine, as was applied in the above cited cases even for repeat offenders, can be viewed as an encouragement of violence, rather than as a preventive sanction which should decrease the threat of further escalation.
Yet another feature observed during both pre-election periods was the dismissal of employees from the public sector. During the 2012 parliamentary elections, the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections (IATF) developed the recommendation that the process of optimization at public entities be suspended until the parliamentary elections had been held.
hat move, in the opinion of election observer organizations, positively affected the process back then. The IATF, now operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry, has issued a similar recommendation for the period preceding the presidential elections, but statements can still be heard about politically motivated dismissals in the Tbilisi City Council. A report published by Transparency International Georgia focused on the wave of dismissals that occurred after the 2012 parliamentary elections, the report stating that 5,149 public servants lost their jobs during the period between 20 October 2012 and 1 March 2013. The developments that occurred in self-government bodies is yet another issue. Having won the parliamentary elections, the Georgian Dream proceeded to carry out an attack on local government that was of a scale and zeal that the Vikings would have been proud of. As a result, from between 1 October 2012 and 3 August 2013, 55 municipal heads of local administrations and 31 local council heads were replaced across Georgia, which also ensued the dismissal of 2,321 other employees.In a country with an underdeveloped culture of separating the ruling party from the government, this situation has not changed since 1 October 2012. The most effective mechanism of tackling this problem and developing a new culture, naturally, largely depends on the adequate execution of sanctions – which must be sufficient to acquire meaning and set precedents for future practice. During the 2012 parliamentary elections, tens of civil servants were penalized for the use of administrative resources in favor of the ruling party. Today, under the new political environment, however, the government often opts to turn a blind eye to such occurrences and, instead of reacting to the issues detected by observer organizations, it makes the existence of certain facts debatable (for example, the use of a state helicopter by the presidential candidate of the Georgian Dream; the participation of public servants in election campaign meetings with voters, et cetera).
Finally, there is the media environment, which, since the 2012 parliamentary elections, has seen changes in ownership; the closure of a media outlet (Channel 9, which was owned by the prime minister); institutional conflicts inside management (including the dismissal of the general director of the Georgian Public Broadcaster by the Board of Trustees on two separate occasions); fewer political debates occurring as compared to the period of the parliamentary elections, including on the Georgian Public Broadcaster that is required by law to ensure political pluralism; and the closure of two political talk shows on that channel.
It is still a bit premature to precisely judge to what extent the election environment has changed for the better in Georgia based on the tendencies discussed above. However, one thing is clear at this stage: against the backdrop of society's low level of interest towards the election process and the sluggishness of the election campaign conducted by the political class, the various violations occurring today follow the same "well-tested" pattern of the previous election and, on occasions, have taken on an even graver form.