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Election - 01 October 2012

The October 2012 parliamentary elections led to the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in the country’s post-Soviet history. There are no legal restrictions on political party formation beyond registration requirements, and the election code adopted in December 2011 allows an individual to run for office without party affiliation. According to the OSCE’s election report, freedom of association, assembly, and expression were respected overall during the preelection period, although instances of harassment and intimidation of party activists marred the campaign.

The parliamentary elections were for a total of 150 mandates (77 under the proportional party-list system and 73 in single-mandate constituencies). A total of 14 parties and two blocs registered to compete, while three opposition parties – United Georgia, Georgia’s Path, and the Greens – opted not to run. The election is primarily a contest between President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM), and the opposition Georgian Dream bloc of billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili. The Christian Democrats bloc, and possibly the New Rightists and the populist Labor Party, stand a chance to win parliamentary representation. Voters will have a choice between 2,806 candidates, including 2,313 candidates from party lists on the proportional ballot and 493 candidates on majoritarian ballots. Preliminary voter lists include a total of 3,621,256 voters.

President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded the defeat of his United National Movement party to the upstart Georgian Dream opposition bloc backed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man. The six-party coalition, pieced together by Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, remained united through the electoral season, but they were united by little more than opposition to Saakashvili. It is widely expected that once seated in parliament it will crumble into the sort of legislative infighting that marked post-Orange Revolution Ukraine. It is said that Ivanishvili hopes to claim the prime minister's spot, though as of election day he was neither a member of the next parliament, nor even a citizen of Georgia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM) sought to induce the maximum number of political parties, in particular its main opposition rival, the Georgian Dream bloc headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, to sign up to a four-point code of conduct. The code of conduct was aimed at ensuring that the 01 October 2012 parliamentary election campaign is peaceful, free, and fair, and that all parties participating agree in advance to accept the outcome as legitimate if it is assessed as such by international election observers. But the chances of doing so now appear remote after the head of the OSCE/ODIHR International Election Observation Mission said it is not the task of that mission to rule on the “legitimacy” of the election. Two opposition parties represented in the outgoing parliament -- the New Rightists and the Christian-Democratic Movement -- indicated that they would sign the ENM’s declaration, as did the National Democratic Party. But Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream categorically rejected as unacceptable any a priori endorsement of the election results.

The tone of campaign messages of both UNM and GD senior leadership and majoritarian candidates was confrontational and rough. While the UNM leadership systematically questions the origins of Mr. Ivanishvili’s assets and his political agenda in case of victory, the GD responds by accusing the UNM of misrepresenting facts. Door-to-door campaigning and small-sized meetings in villages and small urban communities are widely used by most parties. The UNM and GD additionally organized large-scale rallies and concerts and are engaged in attracting voters from across all segments of the population. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) election bloc and New Rights (NR) mostly rely on their traditional rural electorate.

Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili made his fortune during the 1990s in Russia. With a fortune of $6.4 billion, Ivanishvili built a following by giving charity to thousands of people. He used his money to pay for a television channel and to forge a coalition of anti-Saakashvili forces. Ivanishvili's Russian-made billions provoked sharp criticism that he is the Kremlin's man in the parliamentary race, ready to sell out Georgia's political independence and return the country to Moscow's fold. But Ivanishvili has sold off most of his Russian assets and spent the last decade living in Georgia. According to the results of a poll by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, the Saakashvili's United National Movement rating in September 2011 was 44 percent, while the four most popular opposition parties together polled just 22 percent.

Ivanishvili is not running for election, having been stripped of his Georgian citizenship in October 2011 and having spurned the constitutional loophole created to enable citizens of EU member states who had lived in Georgia for 10 years to run for public office. The Georgian Dream bloc consists of six members -- Democratic Georgia, the Conservative Party, the Republican Party, Industry Will Save Georgia, Our Georgia-Free Democrats, and the National Forum.

After Ivanishvili announced in October 2011 that he intended to establish an opposition political party to compete in the 2012 parliamentary elections, there were reports that government officials targeted individuals and businesses associated with him for politically motivated harassment. In one illustrative example, materials imported by Ivanishvili for business and political purposes were repeatedly and inexplicably found to be damaged following their release from customs. Moreover, representatives from Ivanishvili’s Cartu Group reported the percentage of their imports delayed by additional inspection increased from 10 percent to 100 percent since Ivanishvili entered politics. An independent monitoring company contracted by Cartu Group confirmed that Cartu imports were undamaged prior to customs entry and damaged after customs released the cargo.

Pursuant to Article 32 of the Law on Citizenship, the government canceled the Georgian citizenship of Ivanishvili and his wife, Ekaterine Khvedelidze, on 11 October 2011, several days after Ivanishvili publicly acknowledged possessing French citizenship while declaring his intention to renounce it. Article 32 provides that a person loses his or her Georgian citizenship if he or she acquires another citizenship. Both Ivanishvili and Khvedelidze challenged their loss of citizenship in court. In a December 27 decision, the Tbilisi City Court found that the government had overreached in the case of Khvedelidze, since she had acquired her Georgian citizenship after her French citizenship, and annulled the government’s order revoking her Georgian citizenship. The court upheld the government’s decision in the case of Ivanishvili, who had acquired his Georgian citizenship before his French citizenship.

Opposition-linked individuals and organizations continued to report pressure on potential donors. On December 28, parliament amended the Law on Political Unions to regulate campaign and political party financing. The amended law prohibited corporate donations to political parties and provision of money, goods, or services to voters by parties; required all financial contributions to parties be made by wire transfer to ensure transparency; limited the overall amount a party can receive from public and private sources in a year to 0.2 percent of the country’s GDP; and delegated financial oversight of party financing to the government’s auditing agency, the Chamber of Control. However, local and international observers raised concerns about several amendments, including the vagueness of the criteria for determining political bribery and which individuals and organizations would be subject to the law.

Although independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, direct or indirect government influence over media outlets remained a concern. According to Transparency International Georgia’s Georgia National Integrity System Assessment for 2011, while “the country has mostly progressive and liberal laws governing the establishment and operation of media entities, in practice the media remain less transparent, accountable, and independent.” While print media frequently criticized senior government officials during the year, some individuals affiliated with newspapers reported facing pressure and intimidation for doing so. Few newspapers were commercially viable.

According to Transparency International’s 2011 Georgian Advertising Market report, opposition-oriented print media struggled to attract advertisements due to limited circulation and reported government pressure on businesses. Batumelebi, an independent local newspaper in Batumi, stated that one potential advertiser cancelled after being told by government officials to do so. Patrons in politics and business typically subsidized newspapers, which were subject to their influence. Journalists reported distribution of print media was further hampered by the establishment of a new kiosk chain in Tbilisi, replacing old kiosks which primarily distributed newspapers. Licenses to rent the new kiosks were largely auctioned to companies selling fast food, cigarettes, and lottery tickets because smaller newspaper distributors could not match their bids.

Television was the most influential medium and the primary source of information on current events for more than 80 percent of the population. The three largest television broadcasters were the state-owned Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) and the privately owned Rustavi-2 and Imedi TV, the country’s two most popular stations. All three reportedly had close ties to the government, generally had a progovernment editorial policy, and were the largest providers of coverage on a national level. Pro-opposition stations Kavkasia and Maestro expressed views more critical of the government, but their audience was concentrated in Tbilisi, which constituted 26 percent of the country’s population.

A December 2011 report on the Georgian advertising market by Transparency International Georgia stated “the fact that a number of key companies are controlled by relatives or close friends of current government officials or former high-level government/ruling party members raises not only questions about conflicts of interest, but also about competitiveness and political independence….” The report also noted that the head of the Georgia National Communications Commission (GNCC), charged with regulating electronic communication, owned a major advertising agency, which represented a direct conflict of interest.

There were continuing reports of the physical and verbal assault of journalists by police, confiscation of journalists’ cameras by authorities, and intimidation of journalists by government officials due to their reporting. Journalists affiliated with pro-opposition media outlets reported unequal access to government buildings, anonymous telephone threats, and surveillance by unknown people while covering stories.

OSCE observers found the elections constituted an important step in consolidating the conduct of elections in line with most OSCE and Council of Europe democratic election commitments, but some key problems remained to be addressed. The election was competitive with active citizen participation throughout the campaign, including in peaceful rallies. However, harassment and intimidation of party activists, often ending in detentions and/or fines of mainly opposition-affiliated campaigners, marred the campaign. Other key problems highlighted by the OSCE final report included insufficient distinction between government activities and resources and the ruling party’s campaign; shortcomings in the new election code, such as the disparity of population size among single-mandate election districts, which undermined the equality of the vote; and selective application of the new law on party financing, a law the OSCE stated contained “gaps, ambiguities and disproportional sanctions negatively affecting its implementation.” The OSCE also reported voter lists significantly improved, although they still lacked a comprehensive and uniform address system. In addition officials did not communicate voter registration procedures for citizens abroad to potential voters in a clear and timely manner.

Both the election code and the law that regulates party and campaign finance underwent substantial amendments less than a year before elections. The new election code incorporated some but not all important recommendations by the OSCE and Venice Commission. The OSCE, NGOs, and other observers criticized the State Audit Office (SAO), the regulatory body charged with enforcing the new law on party financing, for failing to apply the law’s provisions in a transparent and impartial manner. Fueling concerns about partisan enforcement, both the chair and the deputy chair of the SAO left to run as members of parliament for the UNM party, while the director’s successor previously represented the UNM in parliament.

NGOs also reported multiple instances of the previous government’s misuse of government institutional resources for political and electoral purposes, including the use of office equipment, Web sites, vehicles, facilities, junior civil servants, and other government-funded material or human resources belonging to governmental agencies to organize or support political events. Before the elections, NGOs documented cases in which public officials instructed employees to create lists of UNM supporters and threatened them with professional difficulties if they did not comply. In Lanchkhuti, the Freedom of Choice NGO coalition alleged that it retrieved a computer memory chip belonging to police officer Shmagi Uratadze that contained residents’ personal data grouped into such categories as satellite dish owners, the local leader of the opposition who “supervises the supply of antennas,” and persons employed by opposition leader Ivanishvili.

In what many NGOs alleged was political intimidation, the SAO opened an aggressive investigation of alleged campaign finance violations in March, summoning at least 260 individuals for questioning. Most of those summoned were linked to opposition parties. Interviews lasted up to six hours, attorneys in some cases were reportedly barred from the interrogation, and some individuals reportedly were required to strip to their underwear for “security searches.” Some individuals who refused to report for the initial administrative summons reportedly were summoned for arrest. GYLA reported that the questioning went far beyond campaign financing and included questions regarding the subject’s political views and at times were conducted in an intimidating manner. Some individuals claimed that authorities asked them to remove articles of clothing during questioning. The public defender confirmed that journalists’ rights were restricted and individuals were not allowed legal representation.

Throughout the preelection period, the SAO levied unusually severe fines for illegal donations, most of which were levied on GD party affiliates. The government subsequently seized assets if the fine was not paid. The SAO fined Ivanishvili 74.3 million lari ($44.7 million) in June and again in August fined him 20.2 million lari ($12.1 million) for alleged campaign finance violations. In a similar case, Kakha Kaladze, who subsequently became minister of energy, was fined 16.9 million lari ($10.2 million) for alleged campaign finance violations. GYLA commented that the SAO’s decisions and subsequent court rulings in these cases lacked sufficient evidence and demonstrated substantial due process deficiencies. In another high-profile case in August, the government seized assets of all GD coalition member parties for nonpayment of a 2.4 million lari ($1.4 million) fine levied in June.

The OSCE found that the SAO failed to implement the law transparently, independently, impartially, and consistently, and mainly targeted the opposition. It concluded in this regard, “questions were raised that challenged due process and the independence of the judiciary.” The former government contended in some detail that the GD engaged in substantial violations of the campaign finance law.

NGOs reported a trend of officials firing opposition members and their relatives from their public sector jobs, before and after the elections, due to alleged politically motivated discrimination. In one high-profile case, authorities dismissed Paata Tushurashvili, the husband of GD spokesperson Maia Panjikidze, from the National Forensic Bureau on April 30. Tushurashvili, the director of the Chemistry Laboratory of the National Forensic Bureau since 2009, reportedly had never been cited or counseled for work performance. GYLA confirmed that, under the terms of his employment contract, Tushurashvili should have been counseled three times before being terminated. GYLA noted that Tushurashvili received a monthly bonus in April, the same period in which he reportedly made the error for which he was dismissed.

In April the Civil Registry denied the request of then opposition leader Ivanishvili for naturalization, a decision GYLA stated was “not in line with legislation” and which many viewed as harassment of a political opponent. The government asserted that according to its Law on Citizenship, Ivanishvili lost his Georgian citizenship after acquiring French citizenship, despite his announced intention to renounce French citizenship upon receiving back Georgian citizenship. In May parliament adopted legislation that allows a Georgian-born citizen of an EU member state who lived in the country for the previous five years to run for parliament. The GD party and NGOs criticized the law as being tailored to allow Ivanishvili to run for office, and he declined to run for parliament under the provision. On October 16, following the parliamentary elections, President Saakashvili restored Ivanishvili’s citizenship, based on a portion of the law allowing him to grant Georgian citizenship based on “state interests.”

Following the October election of the new government, approximately 35 UNM mayors and chairs of city councils resigned. In some cases, the resignations appeared to be in response to protests by intimidating crowds of GD activists. The opposition alleged that this was an orchestrated attempt to change the leadership at the local level. The government denied this. Some reported they were forced to leave or face investigation from the financial police. At least one reported to have resigned voluntarily, reflecting the will of the people as expressed in the elections. There also were numerous instances where GD activists blocked local municipal buildings and police failed to arrest blockaders or provide protection to UNM city council members. Many NGOs considered the involvement of financial police to audit local city council budgets a clear sign of the GD coalition’s desire to consolidate its political base in the regions in advance of local elections in 2014. Local governments were vulnerable to charges of misuse of administrative resources in view of the opaque laws governing local and national spending.

On 16 October 2012, Georgia's presidential press office said that President Saakashvili had restored Georgian citizenship to prime ministerial nominee Bidzina Ivanishvili, opening the way for his appointment. Ivanishvili had previously renounced his French citizenship, but French authorities informed him that his citizenship could only be annuled once his Georgian citizenship was restored.

The newly elected parliament convened for its first session on October 21 in a glitzy new building constructed at a cost of 133.7 million laris (about $82.5 million) in Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city. One of Ivanishvili's first pronouncements after it became clear KO had won the election focused on the possibility of moving the legislature back to Tbilisi. Saakashvili on October 21 defended the relocation of the parliament from Tbilisi to Kutaisi as part of a broader decentralization of power.

On 24 October 2012 Georgia's future prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, said he planned to quit politics in 18 months. The billionaire politician made the announcement to opposition lawmakers in parliament. Mr. Ivanishvili, who had previously said he had no long-term political aspirations, said he will stick to his election promises but leave politics after a year-and-a-half. He told lawmakers that after stepping down, he will become an active member of civil society. On 25 October 2012 Georgia's parliament confirmed a new government led by billionaire-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili. Some 88 legislators were in favor, while 54 voted against. Eight members of parliament were not present at the session held in the western city of Kutaisi.

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Page last modified: 31-10-2016 18:55:23 ZULU