Stuffed ballots, biased campaign tainted Georgia vote: OSCE

MOSCOW Tue Sep 9, 2008 11:42am EDT

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili leaves a voting booth during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tbilisi May 21, 2008. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili leaves a voting booth during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tbilisi May 21, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Grigory Dukor

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Ballot-box stuffing, beatings of opposition activists, biased news coverage and government officials campaigning for President Mikheil Saakashvili's party tainted Georgia's parliamentary elections this year, Europe's main election watchdog said on Tuesday.

The United States praised Georgia as a "courageous young democracy" after its brief war with Russia last month; but the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) ODIHR arm said there were many significant shortcomings in a May 21 election, when Saakashvili's party won a big majority.

Its final report was significantly tougher than the monitors' initial report, which described election day as calm and generally positive, although with some shortcomings.

Washington has defended Saakashvili's government as an outpost of democracy against what it terms Russian bullying, while Moscow portrays Georgia's leader as a warmongering tyrant.

The ODIHR, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ratified its initial view that election day itself was calm and voting was generally assessed positively; though there were "a limited number of serious violations, including ballot-box stuffing".

But it said there were "many significant shortcomings" in the counting of the vote, followed by "widespread and serious irregularities" in the way Georgian election authorities handled around 1,400 election-related complaints and appeals.

At least six opposition activists who were taking legal action against electoral irregularities were beaten, it added.

"In one severe case, a United Opposition candidate's leg was broken by unknown attackers after his car was first forced to stop," the report said.

"Two of the cases followed up by the OSCE/ODIHR concerned opposition figures who...had made allegations of ballot stuffing".

Georgia's opposition boycotted the opening session of the new parliament in June in protest at what they said was the rigging of the election.

Saakashvili, who had promised a "beautiful election" after heavy criticism of the vote which returned him to power in January, said the parliamentary election was free and fair.

But the ODIHR said problems began before the voting started.

Two months before the election, Georgia changed the election code to allow the use of government resources for campaign purposes and to permit officials to mix campaigning with official duties, contravening Georgia's OSCE commitments.

This created an unequal playing field in favor of the ruling party, the United National Movement, the report said.

"The campaign was marred by widespread allegations of intimidation, among others of candidates, party activists and state employees," the ODIHR added.

It cited the cases of opposition activists, particularly teachers, who were threatened with dismissal from their jobs unless they stopped campaigning.

Most television news during the campaign, apart from that of public TV, lacked balance and gave most coverage to Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) party, it added.

"Most monitored TV channels, including public TV, devoted significant and favorable coverage to activities of the authorities," the report said.

The main opposition television station Imedi, which was forced off the air after being stormed by riot police in November, resumed broadcasts but did not cover news or talk shows until after the election.

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