The local elections in Georgia went mostly smooth but there was no level playing field between the ruling party and the opposition parties. This is a comment by the German MEP Michael Gahler (EPP group) who led the Election Observation Delegation of the European Parliament in Georgia. Mr. Gahler spoke to Promote Ukraine after his return from Tbilisi.
Mr. Gahler, can you tell us about your main conclusions about the elections?
The main conclusions are, I would say, twofold. One is the aspect of Election Day and the technical handling of that. I think Election Day in most cases, apart from some incidents, remained peaceful and smooth. And the technical handling on Election Day was fine, as well as the legal framework with regard to the voter’s roll finalisation and the way the Central Election Commission prepared it. And the people also were turning out in higher numbers; that was to be welcomed. On the other side, the conclusion is also that there was by no means a level playing field between the ruling party and the opposition parties.
There was clearly an advantage of incumbency that helped the ruling party, and also the financial supplies that they had were overwhelming in comparison to the opposition. That was a very unfair situation. And the reports that came in were consistent about vote-buying and intimidation of candidates pushing them to withdraw their nominations. This situation is not acceptable. And I think this habit, this practice must end from whomever it comes. And it came according to numerous reports from the ruling party side and their people on the ground.
What about the arrest of Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi? Did it increase political tensions in the country?
I think, of course, there was a surprise, but I have the impression that there were at least no major demonstrations on the streets. And he also called on people saying that instead of going to the streets they should be going to the polls. I think it actually mobilised both sides. It mobilised its own supporters, but also those who are strongly and fiercely against him. Perhaps his last minute return to Georgia before the election boosted the turnout a bit.
The so-called Charles Michel agreement was aimed to end political deadlock in Georgia. The document envisages early parliamentary elections if the ruling party does not achieve a 43% threshold. But their results are higher, so there is no need to hold these elections. What remains to be done?
Well, that was only one aspect of this agreement. There were others and to which the ruling party further committed also before this agreement, especially the reform of the judiciary. I mean, they have, unfortunately, in the run-up to the election and since the agreement was done, not abided by what was agreed, and they have nominated many more judges and also not implemented all the recommendations of the Venice Commission. That is unfortunate, but we are calling on all sides now, first of all, to stay in the parliament. That’s for the opposition and from the government side to seek consensus and dialogue in the reform of the judiciary. The judiciary must at some point be an institution that is not contested, that is not considered to be part of the ruling party, and an independent judiciary is an advantage for all citizens and political stakeholders. Because I think nobody in government or opposition, once they change their role, wants to be exposed to arbitrary handling by any new government. We have seen this confrontation over many years between the major parties and in political life in general. It needs to be overcome, and so far, the 19 April agreement remains valid on the substantial parts of what has been agreed to.