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By Shakeh Avoyan
The chairman of Armenia’s Central Election Commission (CEC), cast doubt Thursday on the credibility of accounts of electoral fraud given by senior Western diplomats in Yerevan who observed last month’s presidential poll.

Artak Sahradian made the comments after a meeting with a visiting delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) which is assessing preparations for next month’s Armenian parliamentary elections. The head of the delegation, Lord Russell-Johnston, has urged the authorities to prevent a repeat of serious vote irregularities reported by observers from the PACE and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during the presidential race. Russell-Johnston told Sahradian that even the Yerevan-based ambassadors of some Western countries witnessed instances of ballot box stuffing, although they stayed for less than 15 minutes at a single polling station.

The CEC chief dismissed the diplomats’ accounts as “not logical.” “Why was it that ballot box stuffing occurred during the 15 minutes the distinguished ambassadors spent at polling stations?” he asked, speaking to reporters after the meeting. “Couldn’t those alleged fraudsters wait until those ambassadors leave, if they were really intent on doing such illegal things?”

Ballot box stuffing was the most common form of irregularity reported by the joint monitoring mission of the PACE and the OSCE which concluded that the election did not meet democratic standards.

However, Sahradian reiterated his view that the presidential election was a “normal” one despite the widespread allegations of vote rigging. Irregularities were committed by supporters of both incumbent President Robert Kocharian and his main opposition challenger Stepan Demirchian, he said.

Sahradian at the same time noted that the CEC expected far falsifications in the run-up to the February 19 and March 5 rounds of voting. “We really expected absolutely fair and transparent elections, and I once again regret that they were overshadowed [by the irregularities],” he said.

Sahradian further promised that the Armenian authorities will draw “lessons” from the presidential race and will make sure that the May 25 polls are more democratic. Asked to comment on the pledge, Russell-Johnston said: “I believe you can have a fair and free election. But as they used to say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
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