Controversy over the accuracy of voter lists in Georgia has cast a pall over the upcoming parliamentary elections. Election officials have postponed the deadline for finalizing the lists of registered voters until October 30, only days before the election.
The scandal erupted in early October, when Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze found out that her name had been omitted from the list of registered voters in her electoral district. Georgia's Central Election Commission (CEC) subsequently called on the ministries of interior and justice to conduct a review of voter lists that were drawn up earlier this year.
The investigation found widespread discrepancies between the lists supposedly prepared by the Interior Ministry and those eventually submitted in electronic form to the CEC for use in the election. Opposition activists say thousands of "dead souls" remained on the lists. For example, the list for the Krtsanisi district, where President Eduard Shevardnadze lives, reportedly contained the names of numerous deceased individuals. Some opposition politicians claim the number of the dead still on the voting rolls reaches into the hundreds of thousands. At the same time, opposition activists contend, hundreds of thousands of eligible voters have been inexplicably left off the lists.
The voter list confusion is proving difficult to sort out. CEC officials have been forced to postpone the date for finalizing the voter rolls several times. With the latest deadline, October 30, only 48 hours before election day, there appears little room left to maneuver. Political observers are already expressing concern over whether all the problems can be resolved in time.
An October 23 clash between activists of the opposition National Movement and authorities in the autonomous region of Ajaria is indicative of the steadily rising tension in Georgia. The voting list controversy stands to raise the chances of post-election tumult, many observers believe. Already, authorities are bracing for post-election disturbances. Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili warned October 21 that law-enforcement agencies "would not allow chaos and destabilization," the Prime News agency reported. He added that some "losing parties" had already decided to claim "the elections are rigged." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Narchemashvili has been a central figure in the voting list controversy, consistently denying any role in the manipulation of the rolls. On October 13, Narchemashvili characterized accusations of impropriety as "unfair and without foundation." On October 19, the interior minister sought to deflect blame, hinting that opposition activists or CEC members possibly played a role in altering the lists.
The minister also appeared to implicate the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) a Washington-based non-governmental organization contracted by the Georgian government to computerize voter lists. IFES representatives dismissed the notion that the organization was involved in altering the lists. One IFES official, Giorgi Sekhniashvili, said the NGO received the lists for computerization on August 15 more than a month after they had been submitted to the CEC by the Ministry of Interior.
Many observers are focusing on the CEC's role in the controversy, noting that the election body's composition changed in late August. Indeed, even Nana Devdariani the new CEC chairperson suggested the previous CEC may have been responsible for the discrepancies. Devdariani, who was appointed August 31, previously served as Georgia's ombudsman.
"They [the Ministry of Interior voter lists] were in the hands of the old CEC for more than a month. It is really interesting what happened during this time," Devdariani said. "In any case, we are witnessing sabotage and a detailed investigation should be conducted to reveal the role of the old CEC in this."
Civil society activists believe the Georgian government bears a large share of responsibility for creating doubt about the accuracy of voter lists. "This chaos would not have been possible if the government had not deliberately put off the issue to the last moment," said Giga Bokeria of the Liberty Institute. "Voters lists were on the agenda as early as a year ago. However, the government ignored deadlines."
Ultimately, many political analysts, including Ghia Nodia of the Caucasian Institute for Peace Democracy and Development, believe the voter list controversy is connected with a potential government attempt to rig the election. "While it is difficult to speak about a unified falsification strategy, the intention of the president's entourage and regional leaders to engage in fraud is clear," Nodia said.
US and Western European leaders have exerted pressure on Georgian officials to promote free and fair elections, hinting that economic assistance may be scaled back if the vote is marred by irregularities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The latest official to caution Tbilisi was Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who is currently serving as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's chairman-in-office. "This [the parliamentary vote] is a chance for Georgia to achieve its ambition to join the European family. This is directly contingent on how the upcoming elections will go." de Hoop Scheffer said at an October 21 news conference.
Giorgi Kandelaki is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.