By Hrach Melkumian
Officials from the Council of Europe launched on Tuesday their monitoring mission in Armenia, expressing hope that Wednesday’s presidential election will be another milestone in the country’s transition to democracy. The Armenian Central Election Commission (CEC), meanwhile, made final preparations for the crucial ballot.
“We hope that Armenia can demonstrate to Europe that democracy has taken firm root here” said Lord Russell Johnston, head of the 12-strong monitoring mission of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
Russell Johnston, who headed the PACE when Armenia joined the pan-European organization two years ago, said he has received assurances from Armenian officials that the February 19 vote will be the most democratic in the country’s history. Speaking to reporters after a meeting with the CEC members, he also his observer team will closely watch all aspects of the electoral process, including voting and counting of ballots.
In a statement late last month, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer, said that Armenia, as well as neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia, must hold free and fair polls this year if they are to become part of the European community. Schwimmer warned that a repeat of serious vote irregularities in the three South Caucasus states could set back their integration into the European structures.
Russell Johnston reaffirmed this position, saying that democratic elections are essential for regional stability.
For his part, CEC chairman Artak Sahradian said all international monitors will face no obstacles in their work. He said the CEC and the PACE team have “some differences in approaches” but refused to specify them.
The findings of Russell Johnston’s team, though important, will carry less weight than those of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe which has deployed a far bigger monitoring team numbering more than 250 members.
The CEC on Tuesday issued final instructions to the 56 district electoral commissions scattered around Armenia. The latter, in turn, completed the distribution of ballots to the lower-level precinct commissions managing some 1,865 polling stations. Those will open at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. local time.
Under Armenia’s Electoral Code, the CEC has to release the first preliminary results of the vote by 10 a.m. on Thursday. Sahradian pledged to make all relevant information available to the media before then. The CEC, for example, is due to release turn-out figures every three hours throughout Wednesday.
The voter lists, which have been notoriously inaccurate in the past, now include approximately 2.3 million Armenian citizens. Some opposition candidates believe that the figure is inflated and fails to take account of hundreds of thousands of people that have emigrated from the country over the past decade.
(Photolur photo: Russell Johnston, left, and Sahradian speaking to reporters.)