The election (first round) will take place on Saturday January 5, 2008. The second round will almost certainly take place on January 19. There will be no second round if, in the first round, (i) at least half of voters participate (this is likely), and (ii) one of the candidates gets the absolute majority of ballots (this is unlikely).
An extremely serious political crisis began in Georgia on September 25, 2007, when the minister of defense Irakli Okruashvili left the political party of the president Mikheil Saakashvili, the United National Movement, and created a new oposition party, the Movement for United Georgia. Okruashvili made very serious accusations against President Saakashvili. Among others, he alleged that the death in 2005 of prime minister Zurab Zhvania was not accidental, and that the president was plotting to murder businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili.
Okruashvili was in turn accused of corruption and jailed. These events led to mass demonstrations. On November 7, the demonstrations were suppressed violently by police, and the state of emergency was declared, leading to severe restrictions of freedoms of press and of assemby. The opposition TV station Imedi (see: Wikipedia on Imedi), owned in part by Badri Patarkatsishvili, and in part by Rupert Murdoch, was closed down by the government. Its equipment was destroyed in part and stolen in part by government's forces.
On November 8, President Saakashvili decided to solve the crisis by calling an early presidential election for January 5, 2008.
The state of emergency was lifted on November 16, apparently due to international criticism and to pressure from the European Union and the USA.
On December 6, the government permitted Imedi TV to resume broadcasting. Apparently, this decision too was due to international pressure, and was made in response to a strongly-worded request by Adam Michnik, the European Union envoy in charge of observing the freedom of speech in Georgia. In practice, however, as of December 9, Imedi TV seems unable to broadcast because of damaged and missing equipment.
Two referendums will be held together with the January 5 presidential election. Voters will be asked whether a pre-term parliamentary election should be held in Spring 2008, and whether Georgia should join NATO.
Ten seats in the Georgian parliament are offered to ethnic Georgians internally displaced from Abkhazia to other regions of Georgia (the number of such persons is estimated at 250 000).
I do not know how the territories outside the government control, the population of these territories, and internally displaced persons, are going to be handled in this election.
Warning: The website of the Central Election Commission cec.gov.ge is marked by Google as containing malware, i.e., documents that will infect your computer. I do not know what exactly the problem is (Google provides no details), and whether it is actually dangerous to visit the website.
As a general rule: it is very hard to include malware into ordinary webpages (HTML) or into PDF documents. You are therefore relatively safe while clicking on ordinary HTML pages or PDF documents.
On the other hand, malware (typically, a virus) can easily find its way into Microsoft Word documents (.doc) or maybe into font directories (this can happen by negligence, without anyone at the Central Election Commission acting maliciously). I advise you against downloading fonts or opening Microsoft Words .doc documents from cec.gov.ge, unless you know what you are doing. Specifically, before opening any document downloaded from this website in Microsoft Word (or any equivalent), you should disable macros.
The English-language version of the website of the Central Election Commission: click here (at your own not-so-big risk).
Georgia is a member state of the Council of Europe. Georgia approved the European Convention of Human Rights, including the additional protocol, which contains the right to free elections. As a result, all rules of the Council of Europe concerning democracy and fundamental freedoms apply in Georgia, including the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.
The rules governing the observation of elections are contained in articles 68 to 70 of the unified electoral code. The articles are available here (in English).
According to these articles, the right to observe elections is widely open to foreign states and to Georgian and international organizations. I did not spot any bizarre restrictions, similar to those that can be found in laws of other countries.
The status of international observers is very similar to that of domestic observers. Observers have the right to observe the proceedings "from any place" (the electoral commission cannot assign specific places to observers). They can accompany the mobile ballot box. They can "request a voter to show how many ballot papers and special envelopes he/she holds" (the latter provision is extraordinary: observers are entitled to give orders to voters, and not merely to observe).
Observers are entitled to receive copies of electoral commission protocols. They can lodge appeals (per constant OSCE ODIHR policy, OSCE observers never exercise this right).
Any given international organization may have at most two observers present simutaneously, plus one interpreter. This is most certainly not a problem in precinct electoral commissions, where no more than two observers per organization are present anyway. The restriction (if actually enforced) may, however, complicate observation of higher-level electoral commissions, which perform tabulation and other complicated tasks simultaneously, and where OSCE or other organizations might want to send more than two observers.
The law says nothing about the right (or the absence of right) to make photographs or audio or video recordings. In previous elections, video cameras were used in some precincts to record certain operations. As noted in the NAM (needs assessment mission) OSCE report, this will happen again in this election.
The NAM (needs assessment mission) report written in preparation of the observation of this election by OSCE ODIHR is available here. According to the report, "the election administration does not appear to enjoy a high level of confidence". The report recommends the deployment of 300 OSCE ODIHR short term observers; additionally, the presence of 60 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observers is expected.
Observers from the Council of Europe are also expected (see announcement), as well as observers from ISHR-IGFM (National Section of Georgia of the International Society for Human rights) and NDI (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, connected with the US Democratic Party), and domestic observers from various organizations (see press release here).
Past election observation reports from OSCE ODIHR are available here. These reports depict Georgia as a nation that is essentially democratic, but burdened by some serious problems with democracy. Immediately before the last elections held so far (the 2006 municipal elections), public funds were extensively used for social aid programs intended to favor voting for the presidential party. Voter lists contained many errors.
The last Venice commission report assessing the Georgia electoral code is available here. The reports criticizes several details of the code, but there is nothing there implying fundamental flaws in the Georgian democracy.
According to the report of the Council of Europe's anti-torture committee, the situation regarding torture and ill-treatment in Georgian prisons improved dramatically in recent years (reports and press releases available here). This fact is not directly relevant to elections, but is relevant to the respect of humar rights in general, and tends to imply that Georgian authorities are attached to human rights.
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