By Emil Danielyan
Western election observes criticized on Thursday the Armenian government’s handling of Wednesday’s presidential election, saying that it failed to meet international standards.
A monitoring mission from the Organization and Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe declined to deem the vote a step forward in the country’s democratization.
“Voting in yesterday’s presidential election in Armenia was generally calm and well-administered, but the counting process was flawed and the long-term election process fell short of international standards in several key respects,” the mission said in a preliminary report.
The report singled out ballot-box stuffing among “serious irregularities” reported by over 200 international monitors who visited 40 percent of the 1,865 polling stations across Armenia. It also pointed to instances of vote buying, a “heavy” use of government resources by the Kocharian and a biased coverage of opposition candidates by state television.
“It is encouraging that election day went reasonably well, but serious irregularities did not enable us to make an overall positive assessment,” said Lord Russell Johnston, head of a delegation from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
But speaking at a joint news conference, both he and the head of the OSCE observers, Peter Eicher, would not say whether the reported irregularities could affect the outcome of the election. “As far as I know, there are no results yet,” Eicher said. “So for us to comment on results would be premature…It is for Armenia and the Armenian people to validate the results.”
“It’s not possible to answer that question,” Russell Johnston said for his part. “Clearly, if one uncovers serious irregularities, you ask yourself how many you have failed to uncover.”
Armenia’s Central Election Commission had still not released preliminary vote results from the majority of polling stations as of 1700 local time, even though it was legally bound to do so by mid-day. Still, early returns from some electoral districts across the country showed incumbent Kocharian heading for a first-round reelection.
The main opposition candidates, including Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian, accused President Robert Kocharian of rigging the ballot three hours before the closure of the polls on Wednesday.
The OSCE/PACE report says the international monitors witnessed at least six instances of ballot-box stuffing in Yerevan and other regions both during the voting process and the subsequent vote count. According to it, in some polling stations individuals voted more than once.
“Intimidation of proxies was observed in a number of polling stations,” the report says. “The presence of unauthorized persons, including government officials, in polling stations (23 percent), remains a continuing concern, particularly as in a few cases they were seen acting in an intimidating manner.”
“The counting process was negatively assessed by observers in 20 percent of polling stations where counting was observed,” the report adds.
Its conclusions are very similar to the findings of an OSCE mission that monitored the previous Armenian presidential election held five years ago. But Eicher refused to compare the two ballots, saying that the main objective of his mission to check Armenia’s compliance with its OSCE obligations. He also urged the Armenian authorities to address the “serious shortcomings” before the parliamentary elections due this May.
The OSCE/PACE report also contains some positive points. It notes, in particular, that the voting was preceded by a “vigorous, country-wide campaign,” and that the vote count and tabulation were “generally transparent.”
But as Russell Johnston said: “Unfortunately, there do remain people [within the government] who seek to warp the process, rather than accept it as an expression of the people’s voice.”
(Photolur photo: Eicher, left, and Russell Johnston.)