By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian parliamentary elections were more democratic than the recent presidential vote, but nonetheless fell short of international standards largely due to “serious fraud” in the counting of ballots, Western observers said on Monday.
“Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Armenia marked improvement over the recent presidential voting, but failed to meet international standards in several key areas,” a joint monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe said in a preliminary report.
The mission, which deployed some 200 observers across Armenia, gave an overall positive assessment of the voting and the four-week campaigning that preceded it. But it said “significant violations” of the law registered during the vote count call into question the freedom and fairness of the elections.
“Significant problems were observed during the counting process in over 30 percent of polling stations observed,” the report says. “These included the falsification of protocols, ballot stuffing, stealing of ballots and the removal of unaccounted ballots by election commission members.”
“At many counts procedures were poorly followed, criteria for invalidation of ballots were inconsistently applied, and proxies and observers were denied a clear view of the process,” the report adds.
The observers followed the vote count in about 70 polling stations. Robert Barry, the U.S. head of the long-term monitoring mission, suggested that the counting process in other precincts followed a similar, if not worse, pattern.
“This happened under the eyes of our observers,” Barry told a news conference. “I can only imagine what happened in places where they were not present,” said.
Barry declined to comment on whether the reported violations had a serious impact on the outcome of the vote.
The tightly contested legislative polls were as seen as another test of Armenia’s democratic credentials which were dealt a huge blow during the presidential race strongly criticized by the West. According to the head of Council of Europe observers, Lord Russell-Johnston, Armenia has made “undoubted progress towards meeting international standards” for democratic elections.
Still, Russell-Johnston endorsed the criticism contained in the report. Echoing the Armenian opposition’s concerns, he also bluntly questioned the voter turnout figures provided by the authorities. The Central Election Commission (CEC) said that just over 51 percent of Armenia’s 2.3 eligible voters cast their ballots on Sunday. The turnout, according to the CEC, went up sharply during the last three hours of the polling.
“I am mystified that the turnout was running at 43 percent half an hour before the polls closed and then rose 51 percent,” Russell-Johnston said. “In my experience, Armenians vote in the afternoon. They don’t come rushing in at the last minute.”
“When people don’t vote on a fine sunny day, it’s either because they think it will not make any difference or because they distrust the way in which the vote will be counted,” he argued.
Among other irregularities reported by the Western monitors were violations of the secrecy of the ballot during military voting. Also, a group of observers, among them a Swiss parliamentarian, was reportedly bullied in the southern Armavir province by one of the local candidates’ supporters.
In a separate statement on Monday, the OSCE-led mission strongly condemned the previous night’s fatal shooting at a polling station in Shahumian, a village 30 kilometers south of Yerevan. A gunman there killed one person and wounded three others, including the head of the local election commission and the proxy for an opposition candidate. The incident was witnessed by OSCE observers. It is still not clear whether it was in any way connected with the elections.
On the positive side, the observers noted that voting in around 90 percent of polling stations visited by them on election day was not marred by major irregularities. They stressed that the pre-election campaign proceeded without reports of “significant inequalities of opportunities for campaigning.” They also praised Armenia’s state television, strongly criticized for its coverage of the presidential vote, for providing all parties with equal amounts of free air time.
Asked whether the authorities’ handling of the elections will improve Armenia’s image in the West, Barry said: “This was a step in the right direction. But they aren’t there yet.”