15 January 2010

Selecting a CEC Chair: Why Am I Not Surprised?

The holidays and a move to a new workplace have kept me offline these last few weeks, but I'm confident you all have have been keeping up with the lively (if anonymous) English-language commentary and reporting at the opposition Georgian International Media Centre.

And what a few weeks its been. This last month has seen a few positive developments: the public TV board getting 7 new members, including three supported by the independent Media Club and one affiliated with the parliamentary opposition, the new ombudsman issuing a self-consciously apolitical but earnest assessment of the state of human rights, and parliament legally alleviating a concern by the opposition that the ruling party was planning to register supporters outside of Tbilisi as city residents in an effort to inflate its share of the vote in upcoming local elections.

At the same time, we have also seen far more publicized developments: in addition to the end-of-year passage of the electoral law amendments, these have included the tragic disaster that resulted from the unexplainably hasty destruction of the WWII monument in Kutaisi; the strange claim by Imedi TV that 60% of poll respondents want Saakashvili to serve an unconstitutional third term (when, as Imedi also acknowledged, they evidently happened to only choose Saakashvili as the UNM's next presidential candidate); the government's fixation on re-introducing "military-patriotic education" and firearm skills to the public school system; the mixed verdicts delivered against defendants in the Mukhrovani coup trial; and, finally, the four-way game between the president, parliament, the nonparliamentary opposition, and the parliamentary opposition on selecting the chairman of the CEC -- turning what was supposed to be the core component of consensus building in advance of the local elections into a cause for further division and lack of trust.

For now, let's focus on the process for selecting the CEC chairman. To recall, the novelty of this process was that the president was going to select three candidates from a list of nominees proposed by various civil society representatives, and the opposition members of the CEC would select one by majority vote. In the end, most of the engaged civil society organizations threw their support behind one of two longtime election monitors (Eka Siradze and Kakhaber Sopromadze -- both, if I'm not mistaken, of ISFED, which suggests what exactly? A split in the election monitoring ranks, or a strategy to try and stack the deck in their candidates' favor?) Single NGOs selected other candidates, including the three that Saakashvili selected: the outgoing CEC chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili (nominated by the Liberty Institute, which should surely be considered more of a GONGO than an NGO at this point); constitutional court judge Otar Sichinava (sponsor: New Generation-New Initiative); and accountant, public TV board member, and former CEC-contracted monitor of campaign financing Zurab Kharatishvili (sponsor: Alpe Foundation).

The Georgian Media Centre has a good analysis of the predicament that the opposition has now found itself in, thanks to Saakashvili's choice of candidates. Opposition supporters focus on two issues. The first is the inclusion of outgoing CEC chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili as one of the president's three candidates. Whether out of pure cynicism, to reward Tarkhnishivili or other supporters within the government, and/or to force a choice between the other two candiates, Saakashvili did not do the process any justice by proposing a candidate he knew would be flatly rejected by virtually all civil society representatives and political parties. Keeping Tarkhnishvili on a list of candidates to a post from which he is clearly expected to step down has been a quite unfortunate signal of the lack of government commitment to a process of consensus-building in advance of local elections.

The other issue, of course, is Saakashvili's refusal to allow either of the two main NGO candidates to have the chance to be selected as CEC head. Now it's not self-evident that civil society actors -- no matter how respected and experienced in election monitoring they are -- should be expected to become the CEC chair, and perhaps the civil society groups that backed them should collectively have offered Saakashvili not individual candidates but a handful of acceptable nominees, allowing the president to make a choice among several. But regardless the outcome looks bad -- the government consults with civil society representatives and then ignores their preferences. The result? Opposition parties on the CEC are refusing to support any candidate, and it is now up to parliament to select the CEC head. It will be as if the hastily thrown together process of consensual selection never happened (the strangely codified legal timeline, Saakashvili's even stranger disruption of that timeline, and the differences this all suggests between the president and parliament are another story). The government's promise to consensually select a CEC head appears to have been for show, and it has managed to outmaneuver the opposition and civil society to select the CEC chairperson it probably always intended to. This does not mean that the conduct of the election must by necessity be poor, but it does demonstrate a spectacular lack of good faith on the part of the government and continues to breed distrust of the system among opposition supporters.

Unless this is all a farce to re-appoint Tarkhnishvili, salvaging the electoral process will depend heavily on the conduct of whoever is selected CEC chairman, be it Sichinava (reportedly Saakashvili's mother's neighbor, whatever that information is worth) or Kharatishvili. Not much appears to be known about either of them. Whichever of them is selected CEC head will have his work cut out if he hopes to gain the confidence of opposition parties and civil society.

UPDATE: So at least it wasn't a farce to re-elect Tarkhnishvili, who withdrew his candidacy (saying that he couldn't work with the opposition members of the CEC). Parliament chose Zurab Kharatishvili. Without knowing much about him, one could point out that having an accountant serve as CEC chairman happens to be a great idea -- there were certainly plenty of numerical errors made in at least the 2008 presidential election count. But its still not clear whether he has political, collegial, or personal ties that would diminish his ability to perform the abilities of the chairman in the spirit and letter of the law.

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