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Georgia: Presidential Election Update

Categories: Central Asia & Caucasus, Georgia, Citizen Media, Elections, Politics

Although the international media is now reporting a victory for the incumbent, Mikhail Saakashvili, in yesterday's presidential election in Georgia, there has so far been very little reaction to the news in the blogosphere. This contrasts strikingly with how bloggers worldwide reacted to the clashes between opposition supporters and riot police [1] in downtown Tbilisi on 7 November.

Even though it was precisely those clashes which led to a state of emergency being declared, as well as an early presidential election, perhaps that's not surprising. Tear gas, rubber bullets and outrage from international human rights groups is probably more newsworthy than something as increasingly predictable in the former Soviet space as elections.

Nevertheless, there were some active bloggers posting updates on the election although its certain that they will not be pleased. Today at 3pm local time, international observers effectively gave yesterday's vote a clean bill of health despite TOL Georgia reporting numerous cases of intimidation and bribery [2], problems with voters lists [3] and media bias [4].

Now, a few hours after international observers described the vote [5] as “broadly democratic… enabling the Georgian people to express their political choice,” TOL Georgia gives its own verdict on the outcome of the election [6].

It is rather hard for me to believe that Saakashvili won the elections in the first round. The exit polls aired at 10 pm yesterday, which claimed Saakashvili’s victory with over 50%, prompted [premature] celebration and a pop concert among Saakashvili’s supporters. it should be noted that the organizations and medias that conducted these polls are affiliated with the authorities.

[…]

[…] The foreign observers so far say they didn’t encounter extraordinary violations which would change the end results. The votes are being counted — 10% so far. The opposition claims victory and mass violations.

[…]

The election monitors “hailed the elections, but noted some shortcomings” – usual mumbo jumbo. It would take breaking into the polling station, violence and changing the ballot boxes when the monitors were inside for them to note something. To be fair, they must listen to what the opposition says. The final reaction is yet to be publicized.

One blogger, human rights lawyer and outspoken critic of the Georgian president, Anna Dolidze, even observed the vote. Writing on Resistance Georgia, she details allegations of voting irregularities and electoral fraud [7].

There were serious violations all over. There were several trends: firstly, so- called carousels, where groups of people were transported from one polling station to another in mini vans, creating so called carousels, when the same group voted in different stations.

[…] There were cases of observer intimidation, when after observers noted violations there were threatened by Commission members and party representatives.

[…]

All media is controlled, and information dissemination on violations is minimal. A group of organizations conducted an exit poll yesterday, giving Saakashvili 52 percent. However, as the poll was funded by the State its objectivity is doubtful.


TOL Georgia
also raised similar concerns with exit polls days before the vote.

Why would the opposition refuse to accept Saakashvili’s victory in the first round? For number of reasons: first, those polls that claim that has such a chance, are closely affiliated with Saakashvili. One such research center is Greensberg Quinlan Rosner, which is funded by Saakashvili’s party. Of course their results put Saakashvili way ahead of his opponents.

Christine Quirk at Asking Tough Questions in Tough Places, however, believes that such polls are probably accurate. The former Country Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Azerbaijan says that the pollsters are unlikely to risk damaging their reputation worldwide [8].

[T]he Saakashvili campaign finally stepped up to the plate and hired a real pollster, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research from Washington. Among many others, VP Jeremy Rosner polled for NS/NU (Yushchenko’s party) in the 2007 parliamentary election in Ukraine. He’s the pollster that presidents and ruling parties hire when they want to be taken seriously outside of their own countries, particularly in Washington.

Rosner operates on the typical western model of strategic polling: as the president’s pollster, he is responsible for plotting out a roadmap to victory for his client, which, by the way, often means delivering really bad news. As a hired gun, Rosner has nothing to gain by pretty-ing up the numbers if they’re bad; if Saakashvili loses, GQRR loses. Pollsters like to win, and you don’t win by making things sound better for your client than they are. […]

No doubt there will be more discussion and debate on the presidential election which appears to have secured the incumbent a second term in office, but for now this is just an update. Certainly expect more from TOL Georgia which has been the main blog to watch for news on the latest developments during the election period.

As of writing, the blog has just dissected the preliminary report from the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission [9] (EOM) and identifies some of the “significant challenges” which “need to be addressed urgently.”

“The distribution of vouchers for such things as utilities and medical supplies to vulnerable groups was criticized as an alleged misuse of budgetary funds in support of Mr. Saakashvili.”

“The vouchers prominently displayed that they were a subsidy from the President. Healthcare vouchers, as well as employment scheme leaflets, featured visually outstanding number “5”s – the number on the ballot
under which the UNM has run in elections since 2004. Distributors of vouchers sometimes asked recipients whether they would vote for Mr. Saakashvili, and asked them to sign documents confirming their support. Vouchers were in some cases distributed from UNM offices.”

[…]

“The campaign was overshadowed by widespread allegations of intimidation and pressure, among others on public-sector employees. These included a number of confirmed cases of pressure on opposition supporters by the police and local officials to desist from campaigning, threats of arbitrary arrest or job dismissal and cases of landlords who were pressurized not to let premises for use as opposition campaign offices. Isolated instances of violence against opposition activists, including kidnapping, were reported and verified.

“A debate between the four main contestants did not take place as Mr.
Saakashvili chose not to take part and his three main rivals conditioned their participation upon the opportunity to debate with him.”

[..]

“In addition, observers found CEC-produced stickers with the text “Where will you be on 5 January?”, with the “5” in a red circle visually resembling that used on Mr. Saakashvili’s campaign materials.”

No kidding, “significant challenges.” No wonder TOL Georgia questions what exactly was being evaluated by the international observers.

OK, maybe I read something wrong, or misunderstood the whole paradoxical nature of the report which goes “in line with the European values”, but if in any EU country the elections are conducted in such a manner — where media is biased, the votes are miscounted and different opinion is countered with intimidation and kidnapping, then…

Saakashvili came to power with vision and ideals that would move even the most pristine democrats. Now intimidation, threats, biased media, elections irregularities, misuse of state funds seem to have secondary value. Free and fair, is a slogan that must be backed with facts, not evaluations.

Anyway, to end on a lighter note, it's worth pointing you all in the direction of the excellent Georgia Ink where Vladimer Shioshvili has posted satirical cartoons [10] for the past month. I will be waiting to see his take in pictures on the outcome of the election, especially after all the “significant challenges” that were noted by the OSCE.

As I write on my own blog [11], the conduct of the vote as well as the reaction of the international community will likely influence how Armenia holds its presidential election next month. Shioshvili's irreverent look at elections in the South Caucasus might just help the opposition here in Armenia hold back its tears.