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“Dead Souls” to swing Georgia’s presidential election?

Georgia’s final direct presidential election takes place October 28th. The winner will preside over a sea change in government – a transition to a parliamentary system in which the next president will be chosen by a 300-member College of Electors in 2024.

October 26, 2018 - Vitali Shkliarov - Articles and Commentary

Georgian Presidential Palace. Photo: Levan Gokadze (cc) wikimedia.org

Georgia is America’s most reliable ally in the strategic real estate between the Black and Caspian seas, bordering Russia’s troublesome provinces of Ossetia and Chechnya. The country provided troops for American-led wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze was a familiar figure to Americans as the USSR’s foreign minister during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He was succeeded by Mikheil Saakashvili, who worked closely with Washington in coming to – and maintaining – power following the bloodless “Rose Revolution” in 2002.

Currently, polls show three candidates emerging among the 25 registered for the election’s first round; Grigol Vashadze of Power in Unity, a coalition of opposition parties; David Bakradze, the European Georgia candidate; and Salome Zurabishvili, backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party. Two recent polls show Zurabishvili in the third position, with Bashadze and Bakradze in either first or second place.

This is bad news for the Georgian Dream. The ruling party’s hold on power is supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin who has long seen Georgia as within the Russian sphere of influence. Zurabishvili’s poor showing is stoking fears that the party will use the levers of administrative and financial power to commit large-scale voter fraud, depriving Georgians of a free choice. In a nation rated as only “partly free” by Freedom House, it’s no surprise that 40 per cent of Georgians cynically believe Zurabishvili will be in a runoff despite her low poll standing but – assuming votes are counted relatively honestly – will be defeated by either Bakradze or Bashadze in a runoff. Just 23 per cent say they are prepared to vote for her.

Georgian Dream has yet to release its own surveys, but the speaker of parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, recently said that “According to our internal research, Salome Zurabishvili wins in the first round”, noting the party aims to keep the two other candidates below 27 per cent.

How Georgian Dream plans to achieve this with a candidate in third place and with a 44 per cent disapproval rating, Kobakhidze did not say. Yet many Georgians have little doubt the bureaucratic election apparatus is ripe for manipulation by a ruling party with such close ties to the Kremlin.

Warning signs

Enter the Central Election Commission of Georgia, which has warned all parties against bribery or the use of government resources to influence voters. The CEC even named Georgian Dream as its primary concern. Most people would think warning against bribery and misuse of state resources while singling out the ruling party means that while Georgia has a corruption problem, the watchdog agency is working to stamp it out. But most Georgians believe differently – they see the CEC admonitions as a sham; a performance that is cloaking preparations for large-scale fraud in which the Central Election Committee is complicit. As opposition leader David Darchiashvili said: “Elections are falsified not only on election day.”

Darchiashvili was referring to recorded phone conversations released by TV Rustavi 2, the country’s most popular TV network. In the calls, individuals posing as representatives of Georgian Dream converse calmly with the chairs of district-level elections commissions. The apparatchiks gave no indication the calls were inappropriate or unwelcome. Fair election advocates say the calls prove the CEC is colluding with the ruling party.

It gets worse. In August, the CEC announced that the total number of eligible voters in Georgia is 3,503,511. In a country with a population of 3,872,752 (as of January 2018), this means 90.4 per cent of all Georgians can vote, an impossibly large number, considering people younger than 21 who are ineligible to vote are approximately 23 per cent of Georgia’s population. Even accounting for Georgians living abroad, who the CEC did not explicitly say were included, would adjust the number of eligible voters by just 100,000.

Russian export

In Georgia, inflated voter rolls are a mirror image of long-time Russian fraud favoured by the Putin government – the “Dead Souls” strategy, named for the famous Nikolai Gogol novel, a phrase which calls to mind Chicago’s famous “cemetery voters”. Since the CEC is the official Georgia elections watchdog, there is no one who can call the people behind this absurdly inflated number – and the potential for ballot box stuffing – to account.

Just as ominously, the Central Election Commission recently banned photography and videotaping at polling stations which is how Golos – an NGO watchdog – documented election fraud in Russia earlier this year. Perhaps the Russians learnt a lesson that they have since passed along to their allies in Georgian Dream?

Whether the “Dead Souls” will come to symbolise a corrupted 2018 presidential election in a nation still struggling for true electoral freedom, time will tell. Georgians – and others around the globe – watch and wait.

Vitali Shkliarov is a Belarus-born political adviser, commentator and campaign manager working for liberal candidates in opposition to President Vladimir Putin. He had previously worked in American politics for Senator Bernie Sanders, on the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, and for several other successful Democratic campaigns.

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