By Emil Danielyan and Shakeh Avoyan
International observers have strongly criticized Wednesday’s second round of the Armenian presidential election official results of which gave a landslide victory to incumbent President Robert Kocharian. A joint monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe concluded in a report Thursday that the vote was again marred by “serious irregularities in many polling stations” and did not meet international standards.
The report came shortly after the announcement by Armenia’s Central Election Commission of the preliminary nationwide results of the run-off. According to them, Kocharian won 67.5 percent of the vote, easily defeating his opposition challenger Stepan Demirchian who got only 32.5 percent.
“Yesterday’s presidential election fell short of international standards for democratic elections,” Peter Eicher, the American head of OSCE observers, told reporters. “We are disappointed with the process. We had hoped for better.”
“Once again we saw significant problems on election day,” Eicher added.
Lord Russell Johnston, who headed a smaller team of PACE monitors, likewise said that he is “disappointed” with the Armenian authorities’ conduct of the ballot. “Essentially the pattern was very similar to the first round, with a good voting day being followed by a less than satisfactory counting night,” he told the joint news conference in Yerevan.
The OSCE/PACE mission, which comprised more than 200 members, had concluded earlier that the February 19 first round fell short of democratic standards “in several key respects.” Its Thursday report was even more negative and strongly-worded, giving more weight to opposition allegations that the authorities fixed the outcome.
The international observers, whose findings are extremely important for the international legitimacy of the Armenian election, again singled out “widespread” ballot box stuffing as the most serious form of irregularity. “International observers documented and confirmed ballot stuffing in more than 40 polling stations around the country,” the OSCE/PACE report says. “There were numerous confirmed instances of stamped, signed ballots circulating outside polling stations before and during the voting.”
Hundreds of such ballots, pre-marked in Kocharian’s favor, were shown to local and foreign journalists by Demirchian’s top campaign aides on election day. They also claimed that scores of opposition proxies and members of election commissions were forced out of the Kocharian-controlled bodies both before and after the closure of polls. Eicher said international observers witnessed that “in at least a couple of cases.”
“I would specifically remark that my small Council of Europe team actually saw ballot stuffing taking place,” Russell Johnston said for his part.
The counting process was also negatively assessed by the observers who claim to have found further evidence of ballot box stuffing in 18 polling stations. “Unauthorized persons were present in almost half of counts observed,” their report says, adding that there were numerous reports of election observers and proxies barred from monitoring the vote count.
Eicher further noted “significant shortcomings” which he said were registered between the two rounds. He again deplored the mass arrests of opposition activists before the run-off, saying that those were “in contravention of Armenia’s OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards.”
Both Eicher and Russell Johnston declined to comment on whether the reported irregularities affected the official vote results. The Demirchian campaign rejected the figures as fraudulent shortly after the Central Election Commission began publishing them on Wednesday night. Demirchian and his opposition allies called an unsanctioned demonstration to protest the alleged vote rigging later on Thursday.
The CEC did not officially react to the international criticism on Thursday. Still, its senior lawyer, Nune Hovannisian, accused OSCE observers of “hampering” the work of some polling stations on election day. She said that some observers tried to inspect voter lists during the polling and follow vote counts from a closer distance. “We can say that the observers trespassed the boundaries of their rights,” she told RFE/RL.
However, the observers offered different accounts. “My experiences were horrible,” one of them, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL.
“It's clear that the election has been stolen,” “The Los Angeles Times” quoted another election monitor as saying. “They just stuffed the ballot boxes. The most important question tomorrow is, who will this president represent? Apparently only the people who control the elections.”
In a statement issued earlier this week, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, warned Yerevan that the run-off should mark a major improvement over the first round of voting. Schwimmer said bluntly that the February 19 ballot was a “missed opportunity for Armenia to abandon past electoral practices and win the confidence not only of the voters but also of the European public opinion.”
Asked to compare the two rounds, Russell Johnston said: “It is true that we were hopeful that [the run-off] might be better. But it’s also true that the world seldom changes significantly in two weeks.”
The PACE official praised Armenian voters “for their active and honest participation in the process” and went on to warn its authorities: “For Armenia to advance democratically, also by the way to meet its commitments to the Council of Europe,…we need the same attitude to come from the senior political leadership.”