The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Center are closely following the developments after the October 31, 2020 Parliamentary Elections in Georgia, in which the population of Georgia elected its supreme legislative body through universal and direct vote for the tenth time since gaining independence. The October 31 Parliamentary Elections had a particular historic significance – through constitutional amendments in 2020, the electoral system was substantially changed, increasing proportionate parliamentary representation. This was a major democratic development and an achievement of all parts of society.
The period before and after the October 31 Parliamentary Elections, however, involved significant shortcomings that demonstrate the systemic problems both in legislation and practice when it comes to tackling election-related violations. The pre-election period included many instances when the line between the state and the ruling party was erased. The widespread use of administrative resources for electoral purposes was observed throughout Georgia. Reports regarding alleged voter bribing were frequent. The law enforcement bodies failed to adequately address these cases and punish the offenders.
On Election Day there was a mass mobilization of supporters and so-called “coordinators” of the ruling party around the polling stations. The actions of some of these groups were hindering free expression of the will of voters. It should be noted that Human Rights Center did not detect many violations during the voting process. However, there were significant inaccuracies revealed in the final protocols which summed up the results of the voting from Precinct Election Commissions throughout the whole country, including imbalances between the number of voters who came to the Elections and the number of the ballots cast.
As a response to the electoral violations, spontaneous protest actions were organized in various parts of the country. Tens of thousands of protesters peacefully gathered in front of the Parliament of Georgia in Tbilisi on November 8. The protesters later marched to the building of the Central Election Commission where police dispersed them with water cannons and a gas of an unknown type, without giving any prior warning. According to UN Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement, the water cannon or tear gas can be used only in following circumstances: when there is likelihood of loss of life, serious injury or the widespread destruction of property. None of these grounds were present at the action as witnessed by several monitors of Human Rights Center who directly observed the whole duration of the protest action on the spot.
The next day, on November 9, government introduced new restrictions according to which the movement of people, either by car or on foot, as well as being in the public space was prohibited during 10 pm – 5 am. The official reason for introducing new restrictions as announced by the government was fighting the spread of the coronavirus. Although the drastic increase in coronavirus infections in Georgia raises concerns and needs active measures for its prevention, we believe that these restrictions are disproportionate interference into the freedom of movement. They undermine the realization of right to peaceful assembly and manifestation and indirectly restrict it as well. The Georgian government is not authorized to restrict right to peaceful assembly and manifestation under such conditions, according to Georgian legislation. The timing and nature of these restrictions give impression that they were enacted in order to suppress the increased protest movement.
The government of Georgia needs to be open to the findings and recommendations of different civil society groups and human rights organizations regarding electoral violations. This is vital for the promotion of fairer, freer and more democratic elections. It is essential to increase awareness and understanding as to what constitutes the use of administrative resources for electoral purposes. The frequent and widespread cases of misuse of the administrative resources during the pre-election period demonstrate two kinds of violations – the violations caused by the lack of knowledge and violations committed deliberately. Where there are concrete violations of the law, offenders must be punished accordingly. The members of the precinct and district election commissions must be better trained in order to fully comply with the electoral legislation. Disciplinary sanctions should be used where necessary.
And finally, the government of Georgia must not misuse the existing epidemiological crisis in order to suppress the rightful protest of different groups of society.