Embassy News 2014
Observing municipal elections in the Republic of Georgia (June 15)
by Jonathan Katz USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia
On Sunday, June 15, I had the honor of observing municipal elections in the Republic of Georgia. These elections marked another historic milestone in Georgia’s democratic transition. According to the latest Freedom House report, Georgia is one of only five countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union whose democracy scores improved this past year. In fact, Georgia’s scores have consistently improved over the past five years. Especially in light of recent events in Ukraine, it was important that these elections continue that positive trend.
In less than two years, Georgia has successfully managed three elections, including parliamentary elections in 2012 when Georgia experienced its first ever democratic and peaceful transition of power through the ballot box. The international community has overwhelmingly agreed that despite some minor irregularities, all three elections were well managed, peaceful, and fair. According to a joint statement by the Embassies of the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands in Georgia, the June 15 election was “successful”. As the last election before Georgia signs the Association Agreement with the European Union, election officials, voters, observers, and media all approached the day with great professionalism.
Along with USAID/Caucasus Mission Director, Stephen Haykin, I visited a few precinct election commissions (PECs) in the district of Marneuli. Marneuli has a strong concentration of ethnic Armenian and Azeri citizens and is proof of the diverse ethnic tapestry that has characterizes Georgia and the larger Caucasus region. While the younger generations in these communities now have access to Georgian language instruction and educational institutions, the older generation operates mostly in the Armenian, Azeri or Russian languages. The Central Election Commission (CEC) did an excellent job of making election materials available in these languages. At some of the PECs I visited, instructional posters in minority languages were on full display. In Georgia’s ethnic minority regions, which tend to be poorer and marginalized, it is especially important that these citizens have access to election materials in their own languages and make themselves heard through the ballot box. USAID helped to make that possible.
I was particularly impressed with the calm and organized environment in each of the PECs we visited. As each voter entered, the poll registrars diligently checked the table list and accompanying photographs to ensure the voter was registered at that particular precinct. Voters calmly streamed in and out, exercising one of their most fundamental democratic rights in an orderly manner. The PEC officials worked cohesively as a team, with roles and responsibilities clearly defined.
I played just one small part in a very large effort. The U.S. Embassy, in partnership with the Dutch and British Embassies, deployed 88 observers throughout the country. Various domestic and international observer groups and media outlets also deployed observers, leading to a robust effort. In the months leading up to the election, USAID provided valuable technical support to Georgia’s CEC, an elections management body that has shown itself to be increasingly competent. USAID also provided support to a range of political parties to run effective campaigns and, importantly, attract more women candidates.
The municipal elections I observed were particularly important given Georgia’s recent adoption of a new local self-governance legislative package that paved the way for the direct election of mayors in all Georgian municipalities (there are 71 municipalities and counting). For the first time on Sunday, Georgian citizens directly elected mayors who they can hold accountable to resolve local challenges. Due to recent legislative reforms that require run-off elections if none of the mayoral candidates in any given city or municipality receives 50% of the vote, there will be several run-off elections in the upcoming weeks. After that begins the hard work of day-to-day local governance. But I know Georgia is up for the challenge. USAID will continue to work with Georgia to improve it democracy and governance through a broad range of programs, including strengthening national and local government, civil society and the media.