I've been away from this blog for some time, but I'm back in time for Sunday's local elections.
In the last few months, one thing is for sure -- I've been struck by how relatively "normal" the election campaign has been, virtually from the start of February when the president's office issued a verbal guarantee that elections would indeed be held on the day Saakashvili had promised. Surely, much of this has to do with the fact that opinion polls have given incumbent Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava a commanding lead, but if the sense of "security" that this has given the government translates to an overall improved election environment and, most importantly, solid multiparty representation -- not only for the city council race in Tbilisi but across the country -- then this election will be considered an achievement, no matter who wins the mayor's seat.
Yes, the mid-March Imedi "War of the Worlds" scandal was outrageous, but it at least discredited the controversial Imedi and reinforced the notion that transparency of media ownership and control is at least as important as responsible media coverage. If Imedi (or, say, Real TV) wants to style itself as some kind of "shock-jock" version of Fox News, fine, as long as the stations adhere to the law on broadcasting and code of conduct *and* their viewers have a precise understanding of the role of the state or its affiliates in their ownership structures (and other stations are allowed to develop and secure financial support freely). Transparency of media ownership ought to continue to be vigorously pursued after local elections.
And at least on conduct, the media monitoring done by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers for the EU and UN has demonstrated less imbalance in coverage than one might have expected, certainly in tone (with the national broadcasters largely refraining from "going negative" against opposition, unlike the mysterious, Tbilisi-based, pro-state Real TV, set up specifically to counter positive opposition coverage). Yes, incumbent Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava has still had an advantage in coverage, but not an overwhelming one (though the last reporting period from May 13-19 exhibited substantially greater coverage than before). Unsuprisingly, "radical" opposition candidate Zviad Dzidziguri has received far more negative coverage than Irakly Alasania or CDM candidate Georgi Chanturia. And Rustavi-2 appears to have taken the Imedi experience to heart; the media monitoring has shown the station to be the most balanced in coverage of all the national broadcasters.
Yes, the use of "administrative resources" (from official influence or intimidation to the illegal use of state resources to influence votes) appears to still be pervasive, with President Saakashvili himself being publicly dismissive of concerns about the misuse of state resources even to foreign audiences (and confusing the legitimate rights -- and expectations -- of incumbency with the misuse of state resources and personnel). Nonetheless, the amount of attention to the subject, including state-NGO debate, has been spectacular. Transparency International Georgia has done a great job addressing and investigating the issue in Tbilisi and across the country for a USAID-sponsored project. But a few things have been striking about their work: first, most of the findings they have released have concerned rural or small-town areas rather than major cities; second, the scope of their reported violations, while serious, have still largely been on the side of the less egregious; third, the government was responsive to their reporting, with both the Tbilisi Mayor's office and the Inter-Agency Task Force issuing detailed rebuttals on at least the first TI report concerning Tbilisi, as well as at least issuing pledges to investigate violations. More work needs to be done to come to a conclusion regarding that extraordinary exchange between the state and an NGO, and clearly a lot more work needs to be done on getting the laws to function as they are supposed to, but the fact of the exchange was itself an advance.
CEC and Constitutional Reform
The CEC's evident commitment to transparency and, especially, "all hands on board" party work for tackling the perennial problem of the voter lists has also been impressive. A number of problems with voter lists were uncovered, and the CEC appeared eager to address them. I look forward to hearing a final assessment of this process by those who were involved in it, but the final voter list, at least, has not set off any alarms. The fact that the CEC chairman and the parliamentary chairman have both repeatedly reiterated the importance of a democratic, transparent vote has also been noted.
Finally, in the midst of all this, the state commission on constitutional reform issued a draft for a new constitution that rebalances the distribution of power between the executive and legislative branches (which, by the way, is part of a broader trend of constitutional reform taking place across post-Soviet Eurasia).
Election day and after
My perspective on local elections is, admittedly, coming from afar; my guarded optimism primarily concerns elections in urban areas more than the countryside; and in general my view is contingent on these last few days, election day, and the manner in which the CEC and courts handle appeals. I'll remain silent on my expectations for the mayor's race, but I certainly expect to see substantial opposition representation at least in several city councils across the country, even in sufficient numbers to play a role in selecting some indirectly elected mayors. Improvements in process are valuable, but improvements in outcome are, in the end, going to be critical for setting Georgia on a path to multiparty democracy.