Recent changes to Georgia's campaign finance laws and a subsequent fightback by certain groups are underscoring fears that the country's upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections promise to be no-holds-barred dirty affairs.
On February 16, election watchdog and legal advocacy groups launched a campaign aimed at convincing Georgian lawmakers to revise controversial election-related legislative amendments that were passed by parliament on December 28. The changes create a new body tasked with following the labyrinth of political donations and funding to the country's 200-plus parties. The new restrictions ban corporate donations and will make it more difficult for parties to "buy" votes by funneling money through businesses or charities.
To many, the timing of the amendments indicate the ruling party - which controls parliament as well as the executive branch - is prepared to change laws to combat the perceived popularity of billionaire-turned opposition financier Bidzina Ivanishvili and prevent his political movement, Georgian Dream, from taking valuable parliament seats from the ruling party during the parliamentary elections, scheduled for late this year.
These elections are seen as vital for the ruling party since, under the new constitution, the parliament will determine who becomes prime minister following the presidential elections in 2013. While President Mikheil Saakashvili cannot run for president again next year, it is widely expected that he could be named prime minister if his party controls the parliament.
Giorgi Khutsishvili, founder of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN), says the amendments are clearly an effort to curtail Ivanishvili's ability to finance opposition parties. The billionaire, he notes, is the first opponent with the means to compete against the ruling party.
Big brother Mikheil
Opposition groups and non-governmental organizations charge that the government now has free reign to scrutinise the finances of political parties, NGOs, businesses and even private citizens. The amendments bring any possible intermediary for financing parties into sharp focus, enabling the auditing body to investigate any person or entity "connected" with money for political "purposes."
While the changes are clear on punishments - high fines and jail terms are possible for offenders - they stop short of clearly defining how the auditing body will determine who is "connected" to political parties, or what exactly is meant by political "purposes." Critics maintain that the vague wording of the amendments casts a wide net that encompasses businesses, civil groups and even private individuals who are suspected of handling finances for political groups.
Nina Khatiskatsi, programmes director at Transparency International Georgia, stresses that while reforms for campaign finance were needed, the current law gives too much discretion to the Chamber of Control. "There are a few different provisions and issues that are regulated in a very broad way," she says. "I should not be depending on how honest ... the Chamber of Control is and how wise the Chamber of Control will interpret the law. I don't want to rely on that. I want to have more clear guidelines."
Khutsishvili believes the broad nature of the amendments is "purposeful" - part of a strategy to scare voters and potential supports from participating in the elections. "According to my analysis, this broad interpretation is not accidental. It was done to create an atmosphere of insecurity and fear in society and discourage people from participating in the elections," he says. "This is because at last there is someone on the political scene who can compete in popularity and financial resources."
The amendments' implications toward businesses and private individuals extend to "expressions" of political aims - another gray area that Khatiskatsi says could give the Chamber of Control too much latitude. "If a legal entity does not feel that it has any affiliation to any political party, but the legal entity expresses its support to any political party - or hatred to any party - that should not be a basis and ground for imposing political party limitations," she says. "It is about expression and expression should not be connected to the law."
Levan Izoria, a legal analyst with the opposition party Free Democrats - an ally of Ivanishvili - says the amendments are in violation of "human rights" and an effort to "control" businesses and political parties.
The ruling party lawmakers and senior officials inevitably beg to differ, arguing that the only purpose of the amendments is to prevent political bribery and a situation where individuals or groups with access to large finances will have a disproportionately large influence on democratic processes. "Any objective person" should be able to see the amendments only pertain to "financial monitoring," not political control, Natia Mogeladze, head of the new financial monitoring service at the Chamber of Control, told journalists on February 9.
The state audit agency, the body with powers to monitor political finances, in January accused Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream of illegally obtaining GEL1.1m through a sham deal to evade restrictions set by law. But party finance has been a sticky issue too for Saakashvili's United National Movement, the ruling party. Investigations by Transparency International Georgia indicate his party spent more than 17 times other parties, and received five times more from businesses than was legally allowed during the 2008 presidential election.
The government has been under pressure to clean up the financing rules, but Khatiskatsi notes the amendments stop short of regulating one of the biggest problems in campaigns: the abuse of administrative resources. "When you are imposing such restrictions, which is very good, these restrictions should be equally fitted to all parties. Then there should be restrictions on spending government money on gifts," she says. "Then, when I will see the same commitment from the government, I will believe that the aim of these regulations really have fair competition and an equal environment for everybody."