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Parliamentary Elections during the Pandemic

16.07.2020

 
Lana Giorgidze 

In October 2020, the Parliamentary Elections shall be held in Georgia, exactly at that time the epidemiologists expect the second wave of the coronavirus. On the 2nd of July, the amendments were made to the Election Code according to which some of the election events and dates were specified; further, for the prevention of the spread of the new coronavirus, the Central Election Commission shall determine as needed the restrictions on the election day, and the rules to be observed at the electoral precincts as provided for by the Election Code.

In accordance with Article 199 of the Tax Code (Election Measures and Periods thereof for the Purpose of Preventing the Spread of the Infection (COVID-19) caused by the New Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)), the Ministry for the IDPs from the Occupied Territories of Georgia, Labour, Health and Social Affairs shall no later than 10 days before the ballots submit to the CEC the information regarding the number of the voters in inpatient facilities, those infected with the new coronavirus and those in quarantine premises and the information regarding their locations.

On the 3rd of July, the Chairperson of the Parliament, Archil Talakvadze noted at a video conference on the issues of Holding Democratic Elections on the Background of the Pandemic, that the amendments to the election legislation had been made following the recommendations of OSCE/ODIHR. 

"Today we finalized making amendments to the election legislation based on the recommendations provided to us by the OSCE/ODIHR and thus our State has managed up to the date to integrate all the recommendations into the Election Code.  We are focused to hold democratic, free and fair elections in October and by all means each and every remedy has been  adjusted to the election legislation. Certainly, we have taken into account the safety means that would protect our population when participating in the elections under COVID-19 conditions,” Archil Talakvadze stated.

Before making the amendments into the Election Code, the negotiations were held in the Parliament on the 22nd of June regarding the issues how and under what conditions the Parliamentary Elections should be held. The working group meeting was attended by the representatives of the health care sector, diplomatic corps, MPs and the civil society.

After the working group meeting held in the Parliament, the Director of the National Center of Disease Control, Amiran Gamkrelidze talked to the media admitting that the current epidemiological situation in Georgia is one of the best in the region and this by all means provides the possibility to hold elections, resume the teaching process and carry out other events under such epidemiological situation. 

Amiran Gamkrelidze further mentioned the international experience and specified that the elections were also held in Serbia and France during the pandemic.  

Before that, almost a month prior, on 5th of May, the Central Election Commission was participating in an on-line symposium on Elections in times of Pandemic organized by the Association of European Election Officials (ACEEEO). 

According to the information provided by the CEC, at the event they studied the case of Poland where the Presidential Elections were planned to take place on the 10th of May; the participants of the meeting also talked about South Korea, where elections were held on the 15th of April on the background of the pandemic.

According to the information provided by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), the Presidential Elections planned in Poland on the 10th of May were postponed.  This had to be the first presidential elections since declaring the pandemic within the Europe. The ruling party attempted to conduct the elections through postal ballots, but they faced the resistance from the opposition parties.  The opposition stated that it would be impossible to streamline and introduce the postal system in accordance with the democratic standards.   

The local elections were postponed with a year in the UK. The Party of Liberal Democrats was against the decision. The Chairperson of the Party stated: “It is the right decision to delay local elections, but it is not clear why the government has decided to delay for a year rather than until autumn as the Electoral Commission advised.”

Considering the international experience, the Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia stated at the Interagency Council on the Issues of the Coronavirus that the elections under the pandemic is a global challenge, it is a new phenomenon in our life and we have to learn many things. 

“Elections and Pandemics are specific issues that can give us a possibility to gain successful experience, the elections under the conditions of the pandemic is also a global challenge, this is a new phenomenon in our lives and we have to learn much here that we can accumulate and systematize as a knowledge and leave behind so that the institutions can become even stronger,”   the Prime Minister said.  

On the 31st of October, the voters, observers and media shall not be allowed to the precincts without masks and protective means. 

According to the statement of the Chairperson of the Central Election Commission, Tamar Zhvania, the CEC shall surely meet the elections prepared. As she noted in an interview with Interpressnews, the priority would be the safety of the voters. 

“I can tell you that it would be the safest for the voters to visit the precincts as they do not need to be in contact there for more than 15 minutes.  We usually calculate and we know that voters need approximately 5 to 10 minutes to enter the precinct, to be identified and to cast votes.  Therefore, a contact of less than 15 minutes shall not be considered to be a risky contact. However, when there would be some queues on the precincts, the recommendation would be to keep physical and social distancing, but inside the precincts unfortunately it would be impossible to keep social distancing,” Tamar Zhvania admitted when taking with Interpressnews.

Nino Tsagareishvili, the Co-Director of the Human Rights Center believes that the electoral precincts constitute a risk the spread of the coronavirus. 
“The results of monitoring carried out by the Human Rights Center over the elections conducted in the recent years make evident that in various regions voters stay at the electoral precincts for more than 15 minutes creating a threat for spreading the coronavirus. The above problem is caused by several reasons including in the most cases by the lack of training of the election staff and by the lack of their knowledge of the election procedures, further by the lack of knowledge of voters of the election rules and procedures. Such facts often occur on the electoral precincts where there is no possibility two have 2 meter physical distancing as the infrastructure does not allow this.  In sum, taking in account the named problem, there are significant risks for spreading the virus. The Government has not presented yet the efficient ways to handle the particular problems. Therefore, an impression is created that the Government is not properly ready to carry out the elections under the conditions of the coronavirus,” Nino Tsagareishvili said.   

Tamar Zhvania further explained speaking with Interpressnews that the protective barriers are planned to be installed only at the District Election Commissions because according to Zhvania the citizens stay there longer. As what the voting process of the citizens placed in quarantine premises concerns, according to the statement of the CEC Chairperson, the decision has not been yet made.  The position has not been formed either with regard to the voting process of the citizens residing abroad, for according to Tamar Zhvania, they shall make a decision about the process in the result of negotiations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they shall take into account the specific situations in the countries affected by the pandemic. In accordance with the Article 199 of the Election Code, the CEC shall, not later than 30 days prior to the polling day, take a decision by issuing a decree on creating election precincts in other states, and on the feasibility to conduct polls there based on the information provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia regarding the epidemiological situation existing in foreign states. 

According to the statement by IDFI, the delay of the elections might be the sole solution in the countries where the date of elections coincided with the most sever periods of the crisis and the authorities had to tackle all at once the challenges of the pandemic. 

“As we have seen from the example of South Korea, on the back of right planning and proper investments it is absolutely possible to conduct the elections in times of the pandemic. What is most important is that the process must be transparent and open for the media and civil society organizations in order to detect and prevent at the earliest stages the possible violations.  

Holding free and safe elections in October will be a significant challenge for the Georgian democracy overcoming which is connected with introducing innovative methods, taking additional costs and efforts. The factor of time has also to be taken into account. The authorities have to start the consultations in time with all stakeholders, and have to make holding the democratic elections as one of the top priority tasks,” the statement of IDFI reads.

For the elections of October 31, the State Budget has allocated GEL 42,760,652 and from this amount GEL 19,531,295 is for the wages of the staff. It is unknown from the statement of the CEC what amount would be spent on the measures to be implemented and the equipments installed to hinder the spread of the coronavirus. 

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