Georgia Offers Lessons With its Elections

Posted January 14, 2008 at 4:48pm

We recently had the opportunity to lead as well as participate in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s election observation mission in the Republic of Georgia. While we ultimately determined the elections were a “triumphant step toward democracy,” it also reminded us of the challenges we still face here at home with our very own elections.

On Jan. 5, snap presidential elections were held in the face of international criticism, following President Mikheil Saakashvili’s November resignation after his government violently dispersed demonstrators in the capital of Tbilisi. He claimed they were planning to stage a coup at Moscow’s behest, but many observers in Georgia saw the crackdown, including the closing of the country’s most popular television station, as the culmination of three years of creeping authoritarianism. Seeking to salvage his reputation and renew his mandate, Saakashvili placed his fate in the voters’ hands.

As the head of the election observation mission of the OSCE as well as an observer in Gori (Joseph Stalin’s birthplace), we met with the candidates, including opposition leaders. Some of their claims about Saakashvili’s use of state resources in the campaign appeared credible. Nonetheless, the contest was the first genuinely competitive presidential election in Georgian history. Along with most domestic and international monitors, we concluded that the Georgian election largely met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards.

While the Georgian election was the culmination of 16 years of greater freedom for its people, we do not have to look very far to see that even established democracies face difficult elections. Our own country still faces many challenges to our election process. Just look to the state of Florida, where in 2000 the poorly designed “butterfly ballot” caused significant problems for voters. Additionally, in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election, improperly allocated voting equipment in some areas made the process of voting more difficult for some citizens, and malfunctions by touch-screen voting machines caused inaccurate vote totals and raised questions from election experts regarding the integrity of these machines.

Even for an established democracy such as ours, the test cannot only be a “perfect” election. Clearly, no democratic process is perfect. And, in spite of problems in certain districts or regions, we live in a country where we are able to express ourselves freely. While it was truly inspirational to see people of all ages and backgrounds lined up in the snow, waiting to cast a ballot in this first truly competitive election in Georgia’s history, it reminded us of the work that remains to ensure our election process is open and fair.

Saakashvili narrowly averted a runoff and won re-election. But the key question is whether he has learned from the events of the past two months. He should devote no less time, passion, energy and resources to consolidating his country’s democratic achievements by building institutions of government and fostering civic consensus. However dysfunctional at times Congress and the administration may be, our nation’s guiding principles of freedom and democracy still remain the core foundation of this country.

In short, Saakashvili must transcend his own legacy. The man who rode protests to power and introduced the “color” revolution into the political science lexicon and practice must make street politics obsolete in his own country. As its weary citizens know all too well, Georgia has been a revolutionary country; it is time now for Georgia to become a “free and stable” country with a government responsive to the needs of all Georgians.

Make no mistake about it, the United States can and must play a critical role in helping Georgia build on the election and advance this young democracy into the 21st century. We were told that in Georgia, “if it is worth saying at all, it is worth exaggerating.” It is no exaggeration to say that if Georgia can remain on this path, it can become a stable democracy deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) is chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and was the lead election observer in Georgia for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) participated in the OSCE observation mission.